What the Search Institute findings mean

SCA Interns receive lifelong skills for success while helping to save our environmental heritage.

Study quantifies and qualifies SCA's Impact

by Kate Hagner, SCA Program Quality Manager

Kate leads SCA’s national initiatives that use research and data to continuously improve programs.

What’s going on here?

At SCA we’re no strangers to data. But on the front lines of the youth conservation movement, our data are more likely to come from ducks or bees or even GPS-collared bears than from ourselves. 

Over the past three years SCA has been amassing another type: data that reveals the ways SCA experiences impact participants. It has always been our mission to build the next generation of conservation leaders, but we wanted to know whether we could do more, and how we might build on the strengths of our programs to do it better.

We embarked on a project with one central question: Are participants transformed by their SCA experiences? As realists firmly grounded in science, we knew that the answer might not be what we hoped to find.

“Deepening a connection to the natural world and broadened awareness of conservation were changes we expected to see”

Through generous support from the Kendeda Fund, SCA sought out the Search Institute as a research partner. Search Institute matches SCA’s legacy in conservation with an equally strong legacy in youth development, and most importantly, Search’s commitment to building on young people’s strengths aligns with SCA’s values. 

During the first year of the project, researchers collected data through focus groups and interviews with dozens of high school SCA program participants and recent alumni, crew leaders, partner staff at the parks where they serve, and SCA staff who work with these programs year after year. Dubbed the “What’s Going on Here?” phase, during these months researchers asked questions and listened and asked questions and listened and asked more questions and listened and listened and listened.

Researchers emerged with a kind of map of the ways SCA experiences appeared to affect participants. Some of these — deepening a connection to the natural world and broadened awareness of conservation, for example — were changes we expected to see. Others — such as thinking in new ways about who they are and their place in the world — were surprising and exciting. They did, however, speak to hunches we had that there was more going on under the surface in SCA experiences.

Getting Better at the Good Stuff

The second year we converted our learning — paired with Search Institute’s tested strategies for positive youth development — into new trainings and materials for SCA crew leaders, all of which were designed to increase the likelihood that the powerful, transformative experiences were happening more often. During this “Getting Better at the Good Stuff” phase, a pilot group of SCA crew leaders tested these new strategies, then gave us feedback that helped us further refine and improve our programs. 

“It is unusual to see statistically significant differences between pre- and post- program survey results across such a wide range of youth development outcomes.” —Gene Roehlkepartain, Ph.D., Vice President for Research and Development at Search Institute

And last year we dove in. We took the best of the changes we’d experimented with during the pilot period and applied them to all of our youth programs —  we then tested the results. 

We had set out on this journey with that one nagging question: Can we quantify the impact SCA has on members? The answer, we were thrilled to learn, is YES. 

A Constellation of Skills for Success

The 2014 Youth Outcomes Study revealed SCA youth are more connected to nature and more committed to conservation values. Since SCA is a conservation organization, these results alone would have been cause for celebration. The study also showed that SCA participants develop a constellation of other skills for success — expressing ideas, engaging others to reach a goal, responsibility for the greater good, sense of purpose, openness to challenge, perseverance, awareness of their strengths and weaknesses, and more — that it turns out are powerful for creating incredible human beings who thrive in their private lives, in their communities, and in the world. These are also skills that position participants to be a more effective and influential conservation leaders.

“A sense of purpose, openness to challenge, planfulness and perseverance – these can fuel a lifetime of growth and development.”

Researchers saw significant positive change in pretty much every area they measured. This is uncommon. While usually a program moves the needle in a few places, SCA moves the needle in many areas. We also found that when participants were exposed to the strategies we developed and tested during the “Getting Better at the Good Stuff” phase, they experienced greater transformation. 

 “A sense of purpose, openness to challenge, planfulness and perseverance – these can fuel a lifetime of growth and development. And they can be challenging to build in traditional education settings,” Gene Roehlkepartain, Ph.D., Vice President for Research and Development at Search Institute said of SCA’s results. “It is unusual to see statistically significant differences between pre- and post-program survey results across such a wide range of youth development outcomes.”

If you’re part of the SCA family, none of this will surprise you. If you’re new to SCA, we hope that this inspires you to look closer at the potential of SCA as an agent for change both for the environment and for communities. It adds a new dimension to our history, and to our future. It tells us that stories we might have heard in isolation are not, in fact, single stories. This research shows that every story we hear is an illustration of a broader, powerful phenomenon: SCA transforming not only lands but also lives.