Founded 10 years ago by Steinhardt, FAS, and Wagner with support from the Office of the Provost, the Institute of Human Development and Social Change, or IHDSC, aims to “bring people into a new intellectual and research network that bridges disciplinary divides to apply our best theories and methods to difficult problems,” says Director Elise Cappella, associate professor of applied psychology.
Among the fields that IHDSC bridges are education, health, sociology, economics, and psychology, notes Cappella, who works to “support the use of innovative methods to answer socially relevant research questions.” For example, research in locations ranging from New York to Afghanistan inform and examine system-level change efforts by government and community organizations to increase access to high-quality services for more kids and families. Institute projects receive funding from the National Institutes of Health, the Institute of Education Sciences, and the Spencer Foundation, among many others.
Cappella recently discussed the IHDSC’s mission and range of faculty projects that explore questions of acute and chronic impacts of poverty and inequality; education and human development; and the health and well-being of children, families, and communities around the world.
What are “socially relevant” research questions—and how do you approach answering them?
We espouse three guiding principles in the work we support. First, we take an interdisciplinary approach that links different scientists—for example, social and behavioral science and education in a research network. Second, we want the research questions to be rooted in human development and have clear social policy and practice implications. And finally, we believe in methodological rigor—taking a cutting-edge approach that allows us to understand problems deeply and precisely and use that understanding to inform change.
There isn’t one age group of focus, though there are bodies of work that center on infancy and early childhood, others on middle childhood and adolescence, and a growing area that looks at development across the lifespan. Increasingly, we are supporting global health and education research in low-income and conflict-affected countries around the world.
For example, embedded within our institute is Global TIES for Children, an international research center codirected by Larry Aber and Hiro Yoshikawa. It represents a fairly new emphasis to study and support programs and policies that improve the lives of vulnerable kids in low-income and conflict-affected countries around the world. TIES is linked with high-capacity, non-governmental organizations that serve as strategic partners and receives core funding from the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute.
Is there an example of how the interdisciplinary approach is applied?
We place a high value on bridging these so-called academic divides because we know how much we accomplish when we all put our heads together on an issue.
One program, the Predoctoral Interdisciplinary Research Training program, directed by Jim Kemple at the Research Alliance for NYC Schools and sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences, supports doctoral students pursuing research on children’s learning from pre-K through post-secondary education. The program offers research mentorship, policy-practice internships, and a seminar series with speakers from sociology, education, public policy, psychology, and economics who present cutting-edge research on key issues in education science.
Additionally, numerous large studies run through our institute. For example, Jennifer Jennings of FAS and Sean Corcoran of Steinhardt co-led a randomized control trial that looked at how to level the playing field for New York City high school selection through the use of different strategies for providing individualized information to middle school kids, including the use of new technologies to deliver that information. The extent to which those strategies have an impact on the students’ high school choices and their academic outcomes will inform educational policy as well as provide basic information as to how students and families make these choices, what barriers and opportunities exist, and, ultimately, how to increase access to quality high schools across New York City.
Is there a single unifying issue or problem that cuts across the institute?
The vast majority of the work is focused on populations that are economically disadvantaged.
The institute has supported a series of research grants that help us understand child development and economic scarcity, and the kinds of supports and programs needed to increase the likelihood that more kids have opportunities to succeed in school and later in life. A recent grant awarded to Steinhardt’s Clancy Blair, as part of the National Institutes of Health’s Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes initiative, supports his large, longitudinal research investigating ways in which adverse environmental exposures—such as stress, tobacco smoke, and lead—early in life affect children living in high-poverty, rural areas of Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
What’s the advantage of conducting this kind of research at an urban university?
We’re fortunate to be part of this big vibrant university in a big vibrant city. We have a large and growing group of projects that engage with New York City as a laboratory and involve strong linkages with city agencies, policymakers, practitioners, and community-based organizations that are “in and of” the city. We get ideas from being in the city and seeing what’s around us. Much of our work would not be possible outside this diverse and dynamic space.