Worlds of Connections: Engaging Youth with Health Research through Network Science and Stories in Augmented Reality

  • Abstract

    This application requests support to enable a team of experienced science educators and biomedical and behavioral health network scientists to develop and implement the Worlds of Connections curriculum. Most middle school students are familiar with patient care-related health careers (e.g., nurses, dentists, surgeons), but few know about emerging careers in network science that can be leveraged to improve population health. This innovative and research-based science program is strategically designed to increase awareness of, understanding of, and interest in the important role of network science for health. This project will design learning activities that incite interest in network science applications to biomedical and public health research. The long- term goal is to enhance the diversity of the bio-behavioral and biomedical workforce by increasing interest in network science among members of underrepresented minority communities and to promote public understanding of the benefits of NIH-funded research for public health. The goal of this application is to identify and create resources that will overcome barriers to network science uptake among underserved minority middle school youth. The central hypothesis is that the technology-rich field of network science will attract segments of today’s youth who remain uninterested in conventional, bio-centric health fields. Project activities are designed to improve understanding of how informal STEM experiences with network science in health research can increase STEM identities, STEM possible selves, and STEM career aspirations among youth from groups historically underrepresented in STEM disciplines at the center of health science research (Aim 1) and create emerging media resources via augmented reality technologies to stimulate broad interest in and understanding of the role of network science in biomedical and public health research (Aim 2). A team led by University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociologists will partner with the University of Nebraska at Omaha; state museums; centers for math, science, and emerging media arts; NIH-funded network scientists; educators; community learning centers at local public schools; learning researchers; undergraduates; software professionals; artists; augmented reality professionals; storytellers; and evaluation experts to accomplish these goals and ensure out of school learning will reinforce Next Generation Science Standards. The Worlds of Connections project is expected to impact 35,250 youth and 20,570 educators in Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska by: adding network science modules to ongoing 6th-8th-grade afterschool STEM clubs in community learning centers; adding network science for health resources to a summer graduate course on “activating youth STEM identities” for sixth to twelfth grade STEM teachers; connecting teachers with local network scientists; creating free, downloadable, high-quality emerging media arts-enhanced stories; and publishing peer-reviewed research on the potential of network science to attract youth to health careers. Coupled with the dissemination plan, the project design and activities will be replicable, allowing this project to serve as a model to guide other projects in STEM communication.

    The lack of public understanding about the role of network science in the basic biological and social health sciences limits career options and support for historically underrepresented groups whose diverse viewpoints and questions will be needed to solve the next generation of health problems. The Worlds of Connections project will combine network science, social science, learning research, biology, computer science, mathematics, emerging media arts, and informal science learning expertise to build a series of monitored and evaluated dissemination experiments for middle school science education in high poverty schools. Broad dissemination of the curriculum and project impacts will employ virtual reality technologies to bring new and younger publics into health-related STEM careers.