Expanding horizons

Picture of Rosemary Johnston

Pictured: UTS International Research Centre for Youth Futures (IRCYF) director, Professor Rosemary Johnston

The UTS International Research Centre for Youth Futures (IRCYF) believes that youth futures are national futures. It promotes the wellbeing of future generations, and is particularly interested in improving the lives of disadvantaged children.

“We are about positive change: how you think about who you are and what you can make your future to be,” explains founding director Professor Rosemary Johnston, who highlights the fact that children and young people at schools with low ICSEA (Index of Community Socio-educational Advantage) scores, not far from the Central Business District, face challenging conditions. Many don’t speak English as their first language, and many don’t speak English at home, which can contribute to a sense of cultural, linguistic and/or social alienation. This is a serious ethical issue, but it also has critical social and economic cost.

"I think we’re a catalyst which makes that little glimmer of possibilities in a child’s mind.” – Professor Rosemary Johnston

The value of excellence – and giving begets giving

The IRCYF has developed many transformative programs that expand horizons for these children.

IMC Sky High, a two-year social justice program, works in partnership with teachers and students in years 7 and 8. More than 180 students from 13 schools currently attend.

“We expose children to excellence,” says Professor Johnston of the program’s numerous events and in-school and out-of-school workshops. ‘‘And we believe that giving begets giving.”

Over the years, students have ventured behind the scenes at the Opera House, witnessed a major trial unfolding at the Supreme Court after learning about legal procedures in a moot court, cooked for a cause, sailed with round-the-world sailor Jesse Martin, and visited UTS to experience science rooms, the Data Area, and the Dr Chau Chak Wing conference room, and performed percussion alongside the Australia Piano Quartet.

Students have also been invited to robotics workshops, trading days, and workshops at the program’s major supporter, IMC Financial Markets and Asset Management. “IMC are an exemplar of excellent corporate (social) responsibility,” says Professor Johnston.

In August 2016, NSW premier Mike Baird launched the IRCYF’s latest program, Australopedia, a student-built online encyclopedia that allows participants to explore their community and to craft stories about local history, Indigenous history and languages, oral histories, and environmental concerns. It’s a new model of project-based collaborative learning that will engage and connect schools across the country and beyond. Acclaimed children’s writer, Jackie French, will be joined by a growing team of distinguished writers and illustrators to work alongside children across the state to create a sensational multimedia experience.

Life-changing outcomes

The IRCYF and the Sky High program have been a source of countless success stories. One girl in the first cohort flourished to become School Captain and one boy became School Vice-Captain; other participants have also taken leadership roles. 21 of 24 students from the inaugural 2012 program completed the HSC this year.

Participant feedback has been heart-warming. One student wrote: “Without Sky High I would never have thought I could,” while teachers have reported a dramatic drop in negative incidents and a dramatic increase in engagement.

“I think we’re a catalyst which makes that little glimmer of possibilities in a child’s mind,” says Professor Johnston, who is looking forward to the IRCYF’s programs expanding beyond Sydney.

She adds, “The children are made to feel special. It’s got a little to do with being in a different place, and a lot to do with being exposed to excellence. Most of all, it is exposure to people, and the possibilities invoked by high expectations.”

It is an endeavour that UTS Vice-Chancellor Attila Brungs has thrown his support behind: "It is an authentic real-world partnership that fosters collaboration and brings together researchers, community and industry."