Family and Communities

logo of three cartoon silhouettes holding handsOur researchers address critical issues facing families and communities, while promoting healthy human development and productive relationships. This work touches all of our lives. 

These discoveries are made possible through public and private investments, legislator support, multi-institutional partnerships, and the dedication of faculty and student scholars. 

Below, we showcase a fraction of our world-class research in the area of family and communities. You can also subscribe to one of our ACES e-newsletters to stay abreast of new developments in ACES research. 

Racial microaggressions and disparities in STEM

Researcher Jasmine Collins
Researcher Jasmine Collins

Careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are one of the fastest-growing areas of work in the United States, yet racial and gender disparities remain in STEM occupations.

ACES research shows when students of color in STEM majors experience racial microaggressions, these experiences shape their perception of the racial climate on campus. Such experiences may discourage  students of color from continuing in their programs, contributing to the lack of representation in STEM education programs. 

Racial microaggressions are subtle behaviors or remarks that can demean, degrade, or invalidate an individual. According to the research, when students of color in STEM majors felt excluded, invisible, isolated, or discouraged on their college campus or in classrooms because of their race, they were less likely to continue in STEM.

Organizational and community leadership researcher Jasmine Collins studies students’ experiences and observations of race-related incidences on campus and online to understand how these shape students’ perceptions of campus racial climate and institutional supportiveness. She urges universities to create more welcoming and supportive environments for students of color, for all majors, and employ a level of accountability at the campus and departmental level to prevent losing talented students headed toward STEM occupations.

Funding: This work was funded in part by grants from the Center on Democracy in a Multiracial Society, Campus Research Board (including the Multiracial Democracy Initiative), Graduate College Focal Point, and University Housing at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

ACES investigator and department

Jasmine Collins, Agricultural Leadership, Education, and Communications 

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Illinois Strong Couples project

Couple with kids and pets
Families get stronger with the Illinois Strong Couples program

Stressors in life, including the challenges of the current COVID-19 pandemic, can take a toll on marriages and other close, intimate relationships. And science shows these relationships are worth working on. Healthy close relationships are important for individuals’ mental and behavioral health, as well as for kids, communities, and workplaces, according to previous research.

Family studies researchers in ACES, along with University of Illinois Extension, are addressing this issue by launching a new online program for Illinois couples seeking help for their relationship. The Illinois Strong Couples project utilizes ePREP, a science-based program for strengthening couple relationships. The program uses cognitive behavioral interventions, with an added relationship “coach” feature.

The program, which is completely online, is offered in six sessions, each taking about an hour for couples to complete. After every two sessions, there is a 20-minute coach check-in call, during which the couples review the material and practice what's been discussed.  

Studies looking at the success of the ePREP program showed greater relationship satisfaction, improvements in communication and emotional support, less intimate partner violence, and fewer concerns about breaking up or instability in the relationship among couples who went through the program compared to those who did not.

Mixed- or same-sex couples who are 18 years or older; Illinois residents; and married, engaged, or living together for at least six months are eligible for the program. Learn more at https://go.illinois.edu/strong_couples.

Funding: This work was supported by University of Illinois Extension.

ACES investigator and department

Allen Barton, Human Development and Family Studies

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Feeding Kenya’s schoolchildren

School children in Kenyan school
Children in Western Kenyan school

Supporting communities often begins with the youngest members. Many school children in Western Kenya are undernourished, with limited access to meals at school. For those who do receive school lunches, that often constitutes the only healthy meal they consume that day. And yet, these meals have the potential to deliver even more nutrition. 

ACES researchers in the USAID-funded Soybean Innovation Lab are partnering with Rural Outreach Africa, a prominent nonprofit organization seeking to increase food security and socioeconomic empowerment. Their latest effort replaces a small fraction of rice or maize in school lunches with protein-packed, locally sourced soybean flour, adding over 15% more protein to address the children’s daily needs. 

Boosting nutrition in school lunches is just one benefit of the project, which seeks to improve the overall economy and sustainability of the rural African region. To achieve this, project members will train local farmers to grow the soybeans that supply the region’s school lunch programs, not only improving children’s nutrition and stamina for learning, but increasing profits of local smallholder farmers and developing a robust regional supply chain. 

With a majority of local households engaged in farming, the project could make a significant dent in alleviating food insecurity and poverty in Western Kenya.

Funding: This work was supported by ADM Cares and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)

ACES investigators and departments

Juan Andrade, Food Science and Human Nutrition
Annette Donnelly, Agricultural and Consumer Economics

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Building Blocks of Resilience

Family prepares a meal
Building Blocks of Resilience briefs are helping families stay healthy during COVID-19

Challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have undoubtedly created strain and stress for families. And scientific evidence shows that stress has a damaging effect on close relationships.

To help families cope, human development and family studies researchers in ACES’ Family Resiliency Center (FRC) have created the Building Blocks of Resilience briefs, a resource for families offering evidence-based strategies and new ideas to face challenging circumstances even beyond COVID-19.

The briefs cover topics spanning the spectrum of everyday family life, highlighting ways in which families can be resilient. The first brief in the series looks at the importance of family routines and the benefits of incorporating order to daily family life. Other briefs look at the importance of healthy relationships, as well as physical activity during times of stress. In the cooking with kids brief, researchers explore how kids’ involvement in meal preparation can help promote their mental wellbeing and strengthen family relationships.

The briefs also offer advice on strengthening families through traditions and celebrations; tools for talking to kids about racism in age-appropriate ways; and how caregivers can help children develop life-long, healthy eating habits.  

The Building Blocks of Resilience briefs are available for free download through the FRC website.

Funding: This project is supported by the Christopher Family Food and Family Program.

ACES investigators and departments

Allen Barton, Human Development and Family Studies
Aaron Ebata, Human Development and Family Studies 
Barbara Fiese, Human Development and Family Studies 
Chelsea Hetherington, Human Development and Family Studies
Brent McBride, Human Development and Family Studies
Brian Ogolsky, Human Development and Family Studies 
Sharde McNeil Smith, Human Development and Family Studies 
Kelly Tu, Human Development and Family Studies 
Jessica Jarick Metcalfe, Food Science and Human Nutrition 
Alexandra Lundquist, Division of Nutritional Sciences

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