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K-State Today

December 8, 2015



Marriage, family therapy professor first at K-State to try crowdfunding research

By Jane P. Marshall

Amber Vennum is the first faculty member at Kansas State University to try to fund research through crowdfunding, a method that raises many small amounts of money from a large number of people via the Internet.

Funds will support and grow WOWW, Working on What Works, a classroom intervention technique that uses a solution-focused approach and positive reinforcement, in Kansas.

Vennum, assistant professor of marriage and family therapy, leads the 3-year-old school-based family therapy program, a partnership with K-State's Family Center in the College of Human Ecology and Manhattan High School in the Manhattan-Ogden School District and the ninth-grade center in Junction City, a part of the Geary County School District.

"We are at maximum capacity with our current resources, making the funding critical to further test and revise the program and bring it to other districts asking for it," Vennum said. "We are doing WOWW in nine classes at Manhattan High School this semester and have more already on the list for next semester."

Funding for social services and education is declining, she said. "The current reality is that more traditional sources of funding are under a lot of strain."

"This was an excellent opportunity for us to formulate and test a new operating procedure that may be replicated for future opportunities," said Paul Lowe, associate vice president for research and director of PreAward Services at K-State.

"We are excited about the potential of crowdfunding," Lowe said. "Crowdfunding sources could prove to be an advantageous source of support to further diversify our RSCAD funding portfolio for the university. We wish her every success."

"Those wanting to add our program envision a school where the kids, parents and staff feel connected to each other and are invested in creating a positive learning environment that maximizes the potential of all involved," Vennum said.

The program's goal is to help students feel more engaged with their peers and teachers and to lead them to take responsibility for their own education. The technique: Be positive, not negative.

Developed for middle school, this is the first time WOWW has been put in high schools in the United States. It has been used across the full range of academic and development classes — gifted, traditional, kids who need extra help — in grades nine through 12, Vennum said.

Graduate students in the marriage and family therapy program at K-State receive supervision from faculty and work collaboratively with high school counselors and teachers. They help guide a classroom from the usual disciplinary base to a positive base, focusing on what the students do right.

"It's nice to know somebody would appreciate what I did," one student said.

"It made me see a better, different me," a high school student said.

"Basically it's like doing family therapy on a whole classroom. The classroom is a family," Vennum said. "It's change that you can see."

For the marriage and family therapy graduate students, it is a challenging placement, she said. "They deal with two systems — school and family — at once. And some of the stuff these kids have gone through is heart wrenching."

Prerana Dharnidkarka, a doctoral student working in a high school classroom, agrees. "It was exciting and fulfilling to witness change in action," she said.

Sandra Stith, university distinguished professor and director of the marriage and family therapy program, said the WOWW program epitomizes the college's mission of teaching, research and engagement.

"Before I came to graduate school I taught middle school and I often felt overwhelmed by the challenges I faced. I know that this program is serving a need and making a real difference," she added.

The donation site was launched on Dec. 1 and, according to the crowdfunding site rule, can only run for 30 days.

"The more connections between school and family the better the outcomes for the kids. We help build those bridges," Vennum said. "We see such great needs."