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NSF funds launch of a new LSAY 7th grade cohort in 2015
Proposals for continued funding for current cohorts pending

In September, 2013, the National Science Foundation awarded new funding to the University of Michigan for the launch of a new 7th grade cohort in the Longitudinal Study of American Youth. The new award (NSF award 1348619) provides approximately $1.5 million to design and launch a new 7th grade cohort (a cohort is a sample of students from a specific age group that is followed over a long period of time) of public school students selected to be comparable to the original cohorts selected in 1987. The new 7th grade cohort (referred to as Cohort 3) is one generation younger than the original cohorts and will allow a comparison of changes in family and school life over the last generation.

According to Jon Miller, the Director of the LSAY and the Principal Investigator of the new NSF grant, the new sample of 7th grade students will – when followed over several years – provide a needed empirical description of the many changes occurring in American society and in American schools. As in the original 1987 samples of 7th and 10th grade students, the new study will examine the development of student interest and skill acquisition in science and mathematics and the formation of career plans during the middle-school and high school years. Analyses of these patterns of interest development, skill acquisition, and career choices for the students in the 1987 cohorts have provided important insights into the origins and composition of the scientific workforce in the United States, which is an important component of national competitiveness in the 21st century.

The new 2015 cohort will also allow a careful examination of changes in family life and communication patterns over recent decades. Other national studies have indicated that an increasing proportion of children will grow up in families with one parent or in families with two working parents, placing new pressures on families for child care and supervision. For many families, geographic mobility has led to fewer other family members available to provide child care or to assist when a child is sick or for other emergency situations. The new study will provide a systemic examination of the distribution of social capital and the emerging patterns of family support networks.

Over the last two decades, society has experienced a revolution in information and communication technologies. The original LSAY students were selected in 1987 before the introduction of Internet services for home use and many of the LSAY students in Generation X first experienced the Internet in college or in an early job setting. We expect that most of the 7th grade students in the new cohort will have experience on the Internet and may own wireless devices that will support telephonic, text, and video communications. The network of personal and online friendships and information acquisition are likely to have changed markedly over the last generation and it is important to understand both the magnitude of the change and its impact on student learning and attitudes.

“The initiation of a new longitudinal cohort is an exciting event,” according to Miller. “It marks the beginning of a study that will follow the same individuals for several decades of their life and it is only by following the same individuals over a number of years that we can understand the patterns and causes of human change.” The first six years of the new study will focus on the in-school studies and activities of the students with some supplemental information from parents and teachers. After the students in the new cohort leave secondary school (hopefully through graduation), the LSAY will continue to follow them through the use of online questionnaires or printed questionnaires for individuals without online access.

The continuation of the original 1987 cohorts

Funding for the original LSAY cohorts ended in 2011 and Professor Miller and his staff have been vigorously pursuing continuation funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and various non-governmental foundations. Currently, the LSAY has one continuation proposal under review at the NIH and one at the NSF. Conversations with selected private foundations are ongoing.

Miller notes that “the data from the original LSAY students have been useful in understanding national policy choices and this data base has become a national asset.” Although there have been numerous longitudinal studies of more than two decades in Europe, the LSAY is one of the longest U.S. longitudinal studies that focus on all of the factors that contribute to child and human development – parents, families, teachers, schools, peers, community, and media. Miller believes that an accurate model of human development can be found only through the study of all of these factors in the same individuals over an extended period of time. “Longitudinal studies are more expensive,” Miller concedes, “but when it comes to research on human change over the life course, you get what you pay for.” He is optimistic that a long-term stable funding source will be found in late 2014 or early 2015.