Tackling tough societal problems requires applying academic research findings to real-world situations. But translating from findings to solutions can be a daunting task. Now a team at Stanford has created a set of toolkits to help organizations bridge that gap.

People of different ages and nationalities having fun together

SPARQ toolkits help people from different backgrounds and points of view find ways to reduce prejudice and resolve disagreements. (Image credit: Getty Images)

The toolkits focusing on four areas – health, education, economic mobility and criminal justice – are availble now through SPARQ: Social Psychological Answers to Real-world Questions, a program in the Psychology Department at Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences.

In addtion to tips, every kit includes a section that describes the relevant research about the topic in an accessible and relevant way.

“Our goal is to close what we call the ‘last mile problem’ in social science,” said Alana Conner, founding executive director of SPARQ. Faculty co-directors of the lab are psychology professors Jennifer Eberhardt and Hazel Rose Markus.

While there are places like academic journals and industry conferences for researchers to discuss findings, there are not many places that turn discoveries into practice, Conner said.

“Until now, there was no one doing that translation into, ‘Here’s the recipe. Here’s the ingredients,’” Conner said. “We are going to give people the step by step instructions and the relevant research they need.”

For example, Fishbowl Discussions, a toolkit developed with the Diversity and First-Gen Office (DGen) at Stanford, includes eight steps for a moderated discussion between groups whose members are divided acording to social identity – such as religion, gender, ethnicity, social class, political party or even college major. Participants then sit in two concentric circles – hence the name fishbowl – with the outside circle asking questions of people on the inside. A discussion then follows.

The aim is to put into practice research that suggests that members of different groups spending time together reduces prejudice toward each other.

Promoting equity in higher ed

Fishbowl Discussions is one of three toolkits SPARQ and DGen developed to help foster inclusion in higher education.

The DGen Office was a natural partner for SPARQ. Markus has co-taught Psychology 103, Intergroup Communication, for the past four years with Dereca Blackmon, the associate dean and director of DGen. Their course was first developed in 1968 as a place for black students and white students to discuss the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The class later expanded to teach students from all backgrounds ways to relate across socioeconomic and political differences.

With its foundation in the civil rights movement, the class today continues to use many of the discussion activities first used 50 years ago that now serve as the foundation to the toolkits DGen and SPARQ created.

One of those activities is Beyond the Line, DGen and SPARQ’s version of the activity Agree, Disagree. In the exercise, participants are given a statement and walk to different sides of a line based on whether they agree or disagree.

Getting comfortable with discomfort

Blackmon even participated in one of these workshops in 1989 when she was a Stanford undergraduate.

“I had this ‘aha’ moment,” Blackmon recalled about her experience as a sophomore history major taking the class she now teaches.  “It didn’t even occur to me that there is more to someone than the assumptions I was making based on what I could see about them. That’s the root of the kind of work that we do.”

While Blackmon was developing Beyond the Line and Fishbowl Discussions, she realized that for sessions to really be successful, moderators must be able to deal with discomfort that may arise.

“To run these kinds of workshops, people need to have done some self-reflection,” said Blackmon about how the toolkit, Are You Ready To Talk?, was created. This toolkit includes four exercises to help prepare people to talk about differences, including a “Hot Buttons Worksheet” that asks people to reflect on a time when they were not satisfied with how they reacted in a discussion about differences. They even ask about what it felt like: Did your heart pound? Did your throat get tight? Did your face flush?

“It’s important to know what your hot buttons are so that you can manage them,” Blackmon said.

“There have to be facilitators who are comfortable with discomfort.”

By making social science research practical, SPARQ’s toolkits have the potential to help people make evidence-based change in society.

“Most humans want to do good in the world,” Conner said. “We all have different ideas of what that means and how you get there. One size is not going to fit all. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t sizes that will fit many. And that’s the space I want us to be thinking about.”