SMHS researchers awarded NIH grant to develop radon game for teens

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News Article

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School of Medicine & Health Sciences


GRAND FORKS, N.D.—Gary Schwartz, Ph.D., epidemiologist and professor of Population Health, and Richard Van Eck, Ph.D., professor of Population Health and Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning at the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences, have been awarded a small business innovation research grant from the National Institutes of Health. Their project to develop an online game, Radon Awareness Health Initiative (RAHI), will educate middle-school students about radon. The game is being developed in partnership with Triad Interactive Media, an award-winning media services company focused on the design and development of learning and training media.

Radon, a colorless and odorless gas present in many homes in the United States, particularly in the upper-Midwest, causes an estimated 21,000 deaths each year from lung cancer. These deaths are preventable because radon levels in homes can be reduced by venting radon gas out of the home, which often can be accomplished for less than $1,000.

“Many people are still unaware of the dangers of radon and the remediation techniques available to them,” said Dr. Schwartz (right), explaining how the hundreds of educational and awareness programs targeted at adults have had little effect on reducing the population’s overall radon exposure. “It is a kind of chicken-or-egg problem, many adult homeowners don’t know about the dangers of radon and may have little time or immediate incentive to seek out educational materials about it. Rather than targeting adults, we turned our attention toward children and health education in schools. That way, we reach people early, before they become adult homeowners.”

Targeting this audience means adapting the message to the tools and media youth prefer, which is part of the reason the researchers have chosen to develop a web-based videogame. “This project adopts a unique approach—computer games—that aligns learning with the ways youth prefer to engage with content,” said Dr. Van Eck (below), who has studied games and learning for 20 years. “It is not just about appealing to students, though, games also help students transfer ‘inert’ science classroom knowledge into the real world.”

The students first learn about radon and its health effects from classroom instruction before playing the game to extend that learning. In the game, students help a group of imagined extraterrestrials, the Rahi, whose spaceship has crashed on Earth and who need help to reach their rescue ship on the other side of the city. The problem is that Rahi are extremely sensitive to radon—even a few seconds of exposure at levels above four parts per million per cubic liter of air (the current level recommended by the EPA for remediation of homes) can kill them. The Rahi further educate students about radon and the students learn to apply that knowledge by helping the extraterrestrials find the RAHI rescue spacecraft, using a radon-testing apparatus to chart a radon-free path through the community.

This first phase of the project will be tested in 7th-grade health education classrooms in Grand Forks, N.D., before being expanded and distributed throughout North Dakota and other states in a later phase.

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Brian James Schill

Assistant Director, Office of Alumni and Community Relations

University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences

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