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Community service activities could inspire, improve diversity

April 1, 2010

A study of how adventure-based and community service activities work as diversity education was published by UWRF assistant professor and Outdoor Education Coordinator Paul Shirilla and a few of his colleagues.

The study, “Contact Theory as a Framework for Experiential Activities as Diversity Eduation: An Exploratory Study,” was published in the Journal of Experiential Education. 

Shirilla authored the study along with colleagues Jayson Seaman, Jesse Beightol, and Bart Crawford.

“The goal of the research is to find the effectiveness of contact theory, to prove that bringing people together is the best way to foster diversity,” Shirilla said.

Contact theory is the principle that bringing people together is the best way to foster diversity, according to Shirilla. 

The theory will improve people’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors toward toward others, according to the study.

The theory consists of four conditions that are necessary for positive change to occur: (a) participants from different groups must perceive that they have equal status within the situation, (b) they must work interdependently toward common goals, (c) they should have the opportunity to associate and possibly become friends, and (d) they must experience the normative support of authorities.

The four authors split the work up amongst themselves to put together the study.

Crawford ran the program in Hartford, Conn., while Seaman and Beightol conducted interviews and surveys for the study. Shirilla was involved with the research and worked on the statistical data with Crawford.

They conducted this study by observing groups of youth in Hartford from various ethnicities as they did adventure-based and community service activities.

The diversity education program’s goals were to promote diversity, develop leadership, and provide community service among urban and suburban youth who otherwise have few opportunities to interact.

The program involved 82 black, white, Latino/Latina, and Asian youth, ages 13-19.

They lived together for one week at a retreat center just outside of the city, according to the study.

The program began with two half-days of adventure-based team building exercises, followed by four days of community service projects, according to the study.

These major program components were interspersed with free time and other structured events such as a talent show, a basketball game, an African drumming concert and a contra dance.

The authors used two instruments to measure the extent to which contact conditions were perceived and predicted program outcomes.

They used The School Interracial Climate Survey (SICS) and the Miville-Guzman Universal-Diverse Orientation Scale.

These tools allowed them to conclude that these activities were very helpful in promoting diversity awareness among students.

“On a larger scale, we are becoming an increasingly diverse population, and it’s important to be appreciative of other backgrounds,” Shirilla said. “We need to research different theories so we can find a way to make people more aware of diversity.”