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

Worlds of Connections (WoC) is an informal science learning research project from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln
  • Abstract

    The goal of the Worlds of Connections SEPA is to spread knowledge and excitement about network science among members of underrepresented minority communities to support diversity in bio-behavioral and biomedical careers. Because many health problems result from complex systems (e.g. racism, economic inequality, addiction, social influence, and metabolic syndrome), network science is increasingly important for health research. We are a team of experienced science educators and biomedical and behavioral health network scientists who are developing and delivering activities to engage youth with complex systems thinking and network science conceptual tools. We work with the University of Nebraska–Omaha after-school program NE STEM 4U to assess if the activities reach their goals with middle school aged youth and, through NE STEM 4U, will disseminate the activities for parents, teachers, and leaders in informal settings. 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. We are working with faculty in the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts to create stories and platforms to engage youth directly with tools for thinking about complex systems and network science through emerging media (e.g. augmented or virtual reality, soundscapes). Our central hypothesis is that elements of network science (e.g. using “big data” and/or focusing on social inequality and power differences [social justice] as relevant to health disparities) 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. 

    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.

    Network science is a useful tool for understanding complex Systems and System Models (NGSS Cross-cutting Concept 4).