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Ci3 awarded $1.2M NIH grant to boost STEM, health literacy among urban teens

July 14, 2015

The Game Changer Chicago Design Lab (GCC Design Lab), a signature program for the Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health (Ci3) at the University of Chicago, has received a five-year, $1.2 million federal grant to investigate gameplay and game design as a way to enhance science and health education for minority groups.

The money from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will provide significant resources for Ci3's mission to strengthen science and health education on the city's South Side. The grant comes from the NIH's Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program, which supports innovative science, technology, engineering, and mathematics engagement – commonly known as STEM education – in kindergarten through 12th grade.

SEPA-supported projects create unique partnerships between biomedical and clinical researchers, schools, museums, and science centers along with other educational organizations. The goal is to increase science literacy, particularly among groups that are underrepresented in those fields.

SEPA-supported projects create unique partnerships between biomedical and clinical researchers, schools, museums, and science centers along with other educational organizations. The goal is to increase science literacy, particularly among groups that are underrepresented in those fields. Hexacago Health Academy (HHA) students participate in a hands-on team icebreaker activity as part of the first-week of the 2015 SEPA summer program. Photo by Cynthia Davalos, HHA Student Photographer.

This SEPA grant will establish the Hexacago Health Academy (HHA). The game-based science and health curriculum, which is named after a current game prototype designed by The GCC Lab, will use interactive approaches to teach high school students about sexual and reproductive health issues including STIs, HIV/AIDs, adolescent pregnancy and other risky behaviors such as smoking. Researchers will conduct an accompanying study to track HHA participants, who they hope will show improved academic performance and interest in STEM careers compared to their peers.

For the GCC Design Lab, the project is a natural extension to work that is well under way. The GCC Lab, launched in 2012, has cultivated relationships with youth and science programs across the city. The GCC Lab has also "play tested" several models that are proving the power of game-based learning as a way to promote critical thinking, teach students healthier behaviors and open teens' minds to opportunities in STEM and health careers.

To tee up the SEPA project, The GCC Lab has teamed up with the University of Chicago Medicine's Institute for Translational Medicine and the Center for College Access and Success' GEAR UP program, a federally funded initiative that works to increase academic performance and preparation for post-secondary education among students in partnering Chicago Public Schools.

"We're making and studying a genre called serious games," said Ci3 founder, Melissa Gilliam, MD, MPH, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Pediatrics, Chief of the Section of Family Planning and Contraceptive Research, and Dean for Diversity and Inclusion in the Biological Sciences Division. "This project is an outgrowth of our work with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Hive Learning Network. Our goal is to demonstrate through this longitudinal study that making and playing games about science and health will help young people build skills and knowledge; develop an interest in careers in science and health; and promote college readiness."

The centerpiece of the new program will be "Hexacago," a game board designed by The GCC Lab that uses a hexagon-shaped grid to represent the city of Chicago. As students design a game and play Hexacago games, they will be able to understand complex public health issues, principles of effective problem solving, and experience real-life examples that showcase how one component of a system impacts others.

"One of the major strengths of this innovative project is that it lets youth view public health problems in their communities through the lens of scientists and health professionals and offer their own hypotheses and solutions," said Ci3 executive director, Brandon Hill, PhD. "Future generations are living in a time of great promise and complexity, with immense advances in technology and still pressing economic insecurity. At Ci3, we believe through skill building and youth empowerment young people hold the key to solving these complex issues."

For more information on the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab and its projects, research, and partners, please visit the website or Facebook page.

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