LAWRENCE — A team led by researchers at the University of Kansas has received a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to help underrepresented Kansas City youths access enriching out-of-school opportunities.
Internships, part-time jobs and other learning experiences are “useful for young people to really learn more about themselves and cultivate their identities,” said Alexandra Kondyli, associate professor of civil, environmental & architectural engineering at KU. The grant will fund development of a mobile app and other tools to help teens on both sides of the Kansas-Missouri border discover those opportunities — and to connect with transportation services that can get them around town to where those opportunities are located.
“We want to implement new mobility options young people can use to go to out-of-school opportunities, while minimizing energy consumption and transportation costs,” said Kondyli, the project’s leader. “We’re trying to address accessibility barriers that underrepresented youths are facing.”
KU is partnering with a number of Kansas City organizations on the project, including the Kansas City Public Library, KC Digital Drive, ThrYve and Keystone Community Corporation, as well as transit, bike and micro-transit providers in the area.
Their challenge: In sprawling, low-density metropolitan areas like Kansas City, the physical disconnect between residential areas and OST opportunities — combined with unreliable and inefficient transportation services — creates two fundamentally different experiences: Youths from affluent homes and school districts, who are disproportionately white, have greater access than youths from lower-income homes and schools, who are disproportionately Black and Latino.
“The motivation is to support the young people in the Kansas City region and to support them in such a way that not only positively impacts their personal and professional growth, but it impacts our city as a whole,” said Andrea Ellis, director of strategic learning at Kansas City Public Library.
The project is also drawing widely from resources at KU, with participation from the KU Transportation Center and the Center for Community Health & Development.
"It is critical that we address transportation as a determinant or underlying factor that contributes to inequities experienced by youth and families in our communities,” said Jomella Watson-Thompson, associate director for community participation and research at the Center for Community Health & Development. “A key strategy identified by partners, youth and families is the need to reduce accessibility barriers that impede participation of youth in available positive opportunities in our community, including employment, educational supports and pro-social activities.”
“What we found in our research — and research that our partners have conducted — is that students who don’t have after-school transportation don’t have the same opportunities to get jobs or internships or other ways to improve themselves professionally,” said Lisa Koch, associate director for research, partnership & innovation at the KU Transportation Center. “That gap of being able to have opportunities to grow work skills really impacts them throughout their education and careers.”
She added: “This is a very special grant.”
The grant was awarded through the federal government’s Civic Innovation Challenge, which funds research-based projects which address community priorities and have the potential for long-term impact. The KU project was one of 17 nationwide to receive backing during the CIVIC Innovation Challenge and one of six on the mobility track.
Kondyli said she hoped the project results in work that improves the lives of Kansas City youths.
“These are folks that are really young, trying to explore opportunities and trying to learn more about what they’d like to be involved with in the future,” she said. “Breaking the accessibility barriers will help educate them further and grow their occupational identities.”
Photo: Alexandra Kondyli, associate professor of civil, environmental & architectural engineering, works with KU students in this 2017 file photo. Credit: Andy White, KU Marketing Communications.