Clemson youth development researcher and Associate Professor Dr. Ed Bowers has always had a natural curiosity about other people and cultures, particularly why people do what they do.
“I’ve always been interested in how people think and act in different environments and situations, and how the cultural context they live in can influence their beliefs and behaviors,” he says.
That curiosity is taking him all over the world. Over the course of his career so far, he’s visited more a dozen countries and taught in Dublin as part of an international service program, experiencing different cultures and perspectives wherever he goes.
When he visits a new place, he pays close attention to things most travelers are not likely to typically consider, such as what strengths young people need to develop in order to succeed, and how they may differ from what success may look like at home.
“It’s a habit at this point. People and our motivations are more complex than you might think,” he says. “For example, if you’re living in a remote area without ready access to core services such as education, health care or transportation, you’re going to see different measures of success than someone who is living in a major urban center.”
Dr. Bowers carries that curiosity to his research, which asks similar questions, but through a focus on positive youth development, and how youth-adult relationships can influence what goes right in the lives of children and adolescents. His work helps us figure out what every parent asks themselves at some point – why did my child do that? And do they have the characteristics and support they need to be successful in life?
His research also focuses on the strengths of youth, instead of negative behaviors. Bowers says this is because even though there is a widespread belief that the teen years are marked by ‘storm and stress,’ most teenagers are actually doing relatively well.
“Youth do make bad decisions, and there are reasons for that, but they also give to charities, care about people, and have sympathy and empathy for others,” he says. “Teenagers can contribute in positive ways to their communities. Building on these youth strengths rather than focusing on their deficits is a more effective way to promote thriving in young people.”
In 2015, Dr. Bowers and several of his academic colleagues explored measures that can help define positive skills and growth in a book they edited together about promoting positive youth development. The book shares a model that people working in positive youth development commonly use to measure a child’s strengths, called the Five Cs – competence, confidence, caring, compassion and character.
Dr. Bowers helped contribute to that model by examining youth responses from across the country to create a measure focused on what a thriving teenager looks like in a community, asking questions about skills or things that they do that demonstrate success.
Character, for example, can be measured by doing the right thing, having integrity and valuing diversity. Caring, on the other hand, is assessed by whether or not the teenager is bothered by seeing bad things happen to people, or if they want to step in and help.
Dr. Bowers is now working with colleagues in other universities and community organizations to apply that model to youth in other countries and environments, so they can determine how measures of success may need to be adjusted, depending on where and how youth live.
“For example, when measuring competence, a First Nations teenager living in a remote area in Canada’s Northwest Territories needs to have certain skills to succeed that would make no sense to a suburban kid in Boston,” he says. “We’re drilling deeper into the measures to find out exactly what skills are necessary in their specific contexts, to ensure the model can adapt to reflect their unique situations.”
How does one find out what measures work for certain groups of people? According to Dr. Bowers, the first step is asking them. Right now, he’s working with Maasai Mara University in Kenya, Oregon State University, and the University of South Carolina on a Templeton World Charity Foundation funded project to develop a new tool that youth workers will be able use to assess character strengths among Kenyan youth. The project is one of only 14 funded from over 150 applications spanning 55 countries around the globe, and involves interviews with 60 youth and 15 adults to get a sense of what measures are most important for youth living in different environments.
“Within Nairobi, there are teenagers living more traditional lives and street kids who are working towards very different ideas of success,” he says. “The challenge is to develop a model that can be tailored to specifically measure what skills and supports they need to be successful in their specific context of their shared community.”
The instrument they develop will be tested on a sample of 450 youths to establish its validity, relevance and ease of use. Dr. Bowers says the impact of this new tool will be far-reaching.
“This project is not just building a tool for one community,” he says. “It’s also building capacity for youth workers and scholars to conduct high quality research and become a hub for youth development in that area of the African continent.”
Dr. Bowers is also using other opportunities to identify new avenues for applied research to benefit young people. In June he traveled to Senegal with a group of Clemson student-athletes and staff on a school construction project organized by buildOn, a non-profit organization that constructs a new school every two days in some of the economically poorest countries around the world. Now he’s working with YDL program graduate and buildOn Community Engagement Manager Aled Hollingworth to apply their experiences to the development of innovative service-learning opportunities. Next fall, Dr. Bowers also plans to co-teach an international virtual exchange course with a colleague in Vietnam. The course will bring together students from Clemson with students at Ho Chi Minh City Open University to explore the role of digital media in the lives of young people from different cultures.
He says that projects like the Kenyan initiative, service-learning study abroad experiences like the Senegal trip, and virtual exchanges are key to gathering the input needed to tailor youth development measurement tools for global communities. These experiences are equally important for students looking to enter the youth development field.
“Finding ways to get students out in these different cultures conducting field work is the best way to build their skills to see development from a systems perspective, extend our reach, and continue to build capacity in communities they visit,” he says. “Exchanges can also make a big difference, by connecting youth development students from other countries with our students to engage in discussions about best practices, and then identify ways to best promote thriving in diverse communities. Our goal is to encourage positive youth development in a global society.”