Steampunk Art, Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Teen Sexting

Research Offers Insights from the Social Sciences

08/24/2012
By Sandra Seitz

Three new social science research initiatives will provide insights on the mental health of youth in prison, the abilities of youth on the autism spectrum and other key issues of our society. The research and scholarship are funded by Joseph P. Healey grants, awarded by the UMass President’s Office and UMass Lowell’s Vice Provost for Research.

“Steampunkinetics: Building Art into Science” is an art and technology program for adolescents and young adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Directed by Psychology Asst. Prof. Ashleigh Hillier, who conducts research and runs a number of programs for ASD youth, the program includes collaboration with working artists: Bruce Rosenbaum, head of ModVic, a steampunk design company; and Mauricio Cordero, executive director of Mill No. 5 in Lowell.

Steampunk is an artistic movement that melds elements of Victorian-era history, particularly steam power, with modern technology and fantasy. Works of steampunk often feature futuristic ideas as Victorians might have envisioned them.

“Steampunk is a good fit for those with ASD, whose skills often include phenomenal attention to detail, highly creative and divergent thinking and an emphasis on mechanics,” says Hillier. Participants will design and create kinetic art objects, incorporating technology and engineering, working in small groups led by undergraduate and graduate students.

Mental Health of Youth in Prison

Youth are also the subject of a study by Asst. Prof. Stephanie Block and Prof. Doreen Arcus, both of the Psychology Department. They are undertaking a study to identify learning disabilities and other mental health issues among youth, ages 12 to 16, who are incarcerated in juvenile corrections facilities. 

While the Department of Youth Services already conducts clinical assessments before young people are incarcerated, this study will include much more detailed evaluation of 30 individuals to assess their learning, cognition, attention and trauma history and symptoms.  

“Nationally, we know that youth with mental health needs and learning disabilities are overrepresented in corrections facilities, and Massachusetts is no different,” says Arcus. “It’s a common misperception that these problems are simply bad behavior that goes along with the delinquency that put the youth into custody in the first place.” 

“We are also interested in assessing crossover youth, those who are in the custody both of the Department of Children and Families and the Division of Youth Services,” says Block.

The researchers have found evidence that learning and emotional problems predate misbehaviors. Their goal is to increase understanding of how such problems may contribute to delinquency. Ultimately, they will identify areas for possible prevention and intervention in the school-to-prison pipeline.

Arcus and Block are both members of the Juvenile Justice Interest Group at UMass Medical School, which includes researchers from many disciplines, where they will share and discuss the results. Also, they will share results with community initiative groups, including the Children’s Defense Fund in Massachusetts and the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative in Middlesex County. They are active in the coalition led by Juvenile Court Judge Jay Blitzman that brings together members of state agencies, the justice system and the Lowell Public Schools.

Teen 'Sexting'

Teen “sexting” behavior is just one of the student-faculty collaborative research projects sponsored by the Emerging Scholars program, through which advanced undergraduate students have the opportunity to engage in yearlong research collaboration with a professor. Projects are interdisciplinary, providing students with real-world experience to extend their classroom learning, while the application and screening process ensures that advanced student provide real skill and support to faculty scholarship.

“Since students are selected as cohorts, they benefit from training, group meetings and the support of a program coordinator,” says Sociology Prof. Mignon Duffy, who directs the program through the Center for Women and Work. “The faculty have developed strong mentoring relationships with their students, which is particularly helpful as they pursue research positions or advanced studies.”

“Teens, Sex and Technology” is a study led by Assoc. Prof. Andrew Harris of the Criminal Justice and Criminology Department, with Assoc. Prof. Judith Davidson of the Graduate School of Education. In its second year and funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the U.S. Department of Justice, the project is a three-state, multidisciplinary, mixed methods study of teens’, parents’ and educators’ views of sexting. 
In October, the researchers will share their findings with participants and work together to build a prevention program.

Eight interdisciplinary studies are planned for 2012-2013, including faculty from psychology, music, cultural studies, English and political science.