Empowering Future Academic Research: Young People Creating Lasting Impact as Co-Researchers

In academic research today, we commonly see youth as subjects of research, including the study of who they are, their social and cultural identities, behaviours and who they will become. However, more rarely, are youth involved as producers of research – being a part of (or even the centre of) the research process, such as generating research questions and collecting and analysing data. This more active participation of youth is central to a current research project called ‘Making Spaces’ at UCL’s IOE, which involves working with global makerspaces to develop equitable practice in the informal STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) sector.

The project emphasises and implements Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) – young people’s roles include, but are not limited to, helping to investigate and test out ideas and findings and helping to translate insights into co-produced, engaging, practical, accessible resources that can be used across national contexts to create change in professional practice and future academic research globally.

I was attracted by the nature and choice of research perspective in this project and decided to apply to the team as an intern, hoping to learn more about the collaboration between researchers, practitioners and youth, the type of relationships they build and the academic impact it can create. As part of my internship, I looked at existing research surrounding youth and created a literature review on the role of youth as co-researchers and in participatory research. This blog post aims to foster a greater awareness of the benefits and impact youth can bring to academic research and wider society.

I found that a number of researchers have written about the value of researching with youth and the significance their contributions can bring to research. For instance, a project investigating critical arts pedagogy by Dana E. Wright (2019) argues that youth co-research can operate as an analytic tool that opens up a platform for youth to reimagine new possibilities for their ‘intersectional identities, encounters, systems and present and future worlds’; Staci B.Martin et al (2019) argues that creating space for youth voice, experience and knowledge within dominant educational research, can reveal new truths, that may otherwise be unspoken, and help initiate potential change in education. Chezare A. Warren and Joanne E. Marciano (2018) argue in their research that including youth as co-researchers can extend young people’s relationships with their peers as they seek to understand multiple perspectives related to the issue they’re studying. Student voice can also act as a catalyst for change in education environments as adults often overlook or ignore youth voice when it comes to research or policy making for education. Hence, by offering a distinct youth perspective can augment and enrich research findings and outputs.

Although the role of youth as producers, rather than subjects of research is still relatively uncommon within the field of STEM education, research studies from wider fields provide some useful examples for how young people can be involved. For example, a YPAR study by Wright (2020) involved youth researchers producing theatrical skits in a working-class neighbourhood in a West Coast city that was going through gentrification. The young people were involved in investigating and co-generating a framework for social justice arts education. Another study, by Ranieri and Bruni (2013) focused on developing participatory perspectives and self-expression skills of a group (N = 15) of second-generation immigrant adolescents in Italy, based on mobile storytelling and informal education to find out the potential of digital narratives as a research method. These studies help us to understand how young people can not only work with a study but actively contribute to academic research, by pushing the boundaries of traditional ways of doing research. Their contribution also impacts adult researchers, expanding different viewpoints and enabling a more collaborative inquiry – helping to identify things that adults may not notice or know and/or highlighting issues that adults may be overemphasising.

In the ‘Making Spaces’ project, interviewers were conducted between adult and youth researchers (each interviewing one another as well as youth interviewing youth), co-learning about their respective experiences in makerspaces, but more importantly, how they envision change and improvement towards socially just outcomes for a better world. For instance, – youth researchers explained how involved they felt they were in the design of the course, as well as its inclusiveness and reflected on their experience of being a youth co-researcher.

To conclude, although we see increasing interest in research moving beyond using youth as subjects, but as co-researchers, it is still not enough. This matters as YPAR, and other forms of youth work, challenge traditional dominant ways in which research generates knowledge, data and engages with readers and expands these in inclusive ways. By creating space for youth voice, experience and knowledge in dominant educational research, research can reveal new truths and value multiple viewpoints, perhaps that may otherwise be unspoken, to help initiate positive change in education. This is what the ‘Making Spaces’ project is trying to do. In order to share equitable youth practices within the (informal) STEM sector and to inform practice beyond makerspaces, what better way than involve the youth themselves in research, in order to produce findings and outputs that can be relevant and beneficial to them. Arguably, most current research in this space involves adults researching how to improve STEM education for students in formal schooling. But this work could be usefully expanded by involving in the coproduction of research, as ‘Making Spaces’ tries to do.

Having completed the literature review and experiencing being part of the team during this internship, I can’t agree more with the importance of moving beyond traditional methods of research and working with youth as co-researchers. The process is interdependent and multi beneficial for both the adults and the youth – when investigating a topic surrounding youth, adult researchers can only understand to a certain point – they need new perspectives in order to fully grasp the context and experiences. Hence, I urge other future academic researchers to also consider involving youth as co-researchers..

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