Professor hopes $2.6 million grant will assist in adolescent psychology research

Schnitker has been awarded several grants from the John Templeton Foundation but none to the size of her $2.6 million grant awarded to her this past January. Photo courtesy of Sarah Schnitker

By Emily Lohec | Staff Writer

Sarah Schnitker, associate professor of psychology, joined Baylor faculty with a $2.6 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation awarded to her and her partner Benjamin Houltberg, director of research at the USC Performance Art Institute.

“Part of what attracted me to make this move to Baylor was because of the discussion around Illuminate and that there was this concentrated interest in human flourishing and in human character development,” Schnitker said. “Baylor has a lot of initiatives about student character development and cultivating character at multiple levels of society and it seemed like a really fantastic alignment.”

Schnitker found colleagues who share a similar interest in research that deals with growth in adolescents. She took her love of science and math and fostered it in topics centered around humanities.

“I was interested in these philosophical topics of how we build virtue and what’s the good life and what’s core to our spirituality,” Schnitker said. “I recognized psychology to be where you can use the scientific method and falsify some of your ideas and say ‘yes, that’s correct’ or ‘no, let’s try something different.’”

Dr. Charles Weaver, department chair and professor of psychology and neuroscience, believes Schnitker to be a great colleague and addition to the team. Weaver believes she has showcased her own talent and skills not only through conducting her own research but also through the passion she has for teaching in the classroom.

“Teaching for most of us is the fun part of the job. All of us were drawn into the profession because of our experiences as an undergraduate and we value being at an institution that considers that to be a center part of the job,” Weaver said.

Weaver sees his department as a cohesive unit that works together to better the department in and outside of the classroom by providing an environment that cultivates and encourages the team’s research.

“Our department is one. We are a department full of colleagues, and there is not leadership hierarchy, so to say. I see myself not as any kind of boss but as a colleague that’s there to help,” Weaver said.

Schnitker has been awarded several grants from the John Templeton Foundation but none comparable to the $2.6 million grant awarded to her this past January.

“I’m familiar with the John Templeton Foundation mission and a lot of my work aligns with what they’re trying to understand, which is how we cultivate character in young people,” Schnitker said.

Schnitker has proposed three key components the $2.6 million grant will be put towards.

“The first one is money that we are giving out to teams of scholars and practitioners that work with youth. This could be Boys and Girls Club, Lutheran Social Services—all kinds of different organizations,” Schnitker said.

These organizations fall into the category of what is called RFPs, or request for proposals. With the help of the grant, money will be re-gifted to these various clubs in hopes of driving further improvements through the services they provide.

Schnitker sees the work of scholars and practitioners as a key component to creating an organized and effective group. For there to be change, she believes that these two must work together.

“There really needs to be more collaboration between scholars and practitioners,” Schnitker said. “We are incentivizing that and asking people to help build habits by helping adolescences build their character development and see themselves as moral people.”

Schnitker has directed the other RFP to those who work in the media product industry due to the common trend of negative effects she sees that the news highlights when it comes to adolescences and technology.

“There’s a lot of concerns of what technology is doing; some of it is founded but some of it is reactionary and technology doesn’t have to lead to negative outcomes,” Schnitker said. “It’s a tool that can be used for good or bad.”

Schnitker believes there are benefits to integrating technology with youth, but that it is the purpose behind the practice of using these applications that can be costly if not properly applied.

“We are giving out awards for people who build technology for people to make prototypes of a product that will build character in adolescence, and we pair them with a scholar consultant who helps to really assist with the scientific literature and work in a collaborative manor,” Schnitker said.

The $2.6 million has reached various grantees outside the state of Texas. Schnitker has gifted a donation to the Center For Scholars and Storytellers, based out of Los Angeles, in hopes of creating positive entertainment content for adolescents. One other grantee is located at the University of Southern California where an educational app for students is underway.

“They are building an app called ‘Challenge to the Hall’ which works with the NFL Hall of Fame and tries to help adolescences think about the Hall of Fame players, interact with content and then build their own hall of fame about their lives and how they see people exhibit character,” Schnitker said.

Schnitker is proud to see her grant assist with the bettering of technology use and monitoring of content from the entertainment industry to promote positive character growth in adolescents.

“It is really excited to see how we can put our science to good work and not just keep it in the academy and push it out there, but also continue to collect data from these products,” Schnitker said.

Along with the gifted donations from this grant outside of Texas, Schnitker has continued working on multiple projects in Waco.

“The third part of what we’re doing is our own research. We have a couple projects going— most of them relate to character development, a lot of them through athletics,” Schnitker said.

Schnitker sees that athletics take a hit when it comes to character development through the spread of negative views of athletes in the news.

“How can we do sports in a way that cultivates character instead cultivating vices? What you see in athletics is a pretty powerful context that can either bring out the best or bring out the worst, and it’s seeing what we can do differently in that context,” Schnitker said.

Schnitker has also implemented a project with the Cove, a teen nurturing center in Waco, to help support homeless adolescents and provide them with educational opportunities.

“It’s an after-school program and they work with Waco ISD. Kids get transportation over and they have a lot of programming they do to help with more basic needs as well. They provide laundry services, showers and a healthy nutritious meal every night,” Schnitker said.

Schnitker hopes to help enhance the effectiveness of what the Cove can provide these young adults.

“We need to actually understand what works in real people’s lives,” Schnitker said.