Collecting data on kids’ environments and health

By Meghan Chua

Researchers use all sorts of methods to collect their data. For one project on campus, that method takes the form of a cute, animal-shaped backpack.

Graduate student Amy Schultz specializes in environmental epidemiology, which studies how environmental factors affect human health at the population level. She is a leading research assistant on a project called CREATE: Cumulative Risks, Early Development, and Emerging Academic Trajectories. The project, funded by the UW2020 initiative, seeks to identify sources of stress in preschool-aged children.

A small device held beside a pocket sewn into the front of a child's shirt meant to hold it
The LENA device is small enough to fit into a pocket on the front of the child’s shirt. The device then measures how many words the parent and child speak, helping researchers know more about the child’s role in conversations.

To do so, researchers are collecting a host of data from the kids’ environments such as air quality, noise levels, and word count in conversations spoken around the child. They measure stress hormone levels through urine samples and have the children take learning assessments at an initial visit and six months later at a follow-up visit.

Environmental studies focusing on kids ages 3-4 are relatively new, Schultz said. That means the CREATE project will help determine whether researchers can collect home and school environment data from kids these ages.

“It’s really cool data to get excited about because it has a lot of potential for different studies moving forward,” Schultz said.

A device slightly thicker than a smartphone is central to this data collection. It monitors how many words the child and parent speak as well as how many turns each gets in a conversation. However, it doesn’t send researchers the specific words spoken, keeping that information private.

The device fits into a pocket on the chest of a special t-shirt. In addition, children wear a fun, animal-shaped backpack that contains an air sensor which measures the child’s exposure to air pollutants throughout the day. With this approach, the kids get excited to wear the language and air sensor devices, Schultz says.

Amy Schultz
Graduate student Amy Schultz

“The kids are really fun to get to know and get to meet,” she said.

As an epidemiologist, Schultz knows that a study like this with a relatively small number of participants won’t produce any conclusions about the population broadly. But, she said, it opens the door for researchers to pursue similar studies knowing that it can be done. Once more information is available about how noise, air quality, and other environmental factors affect children’s health and development, experts can determine whether to develop interventions.

Schultz has learned a lot developing the protocol for the CREATE project, with her duties ranging from training staff to managing a large amount of data.

“I learned a lot about how to efficiently train and prepare for going in the field, and then also I’ve learned how to be flexible and adapt, to be open to trial and error,” she said.

The UW2020 initiative supports innovative and groundbreaking research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison with the potential to transform a field of study. UW2020 grants are supported by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) with combined funding from other sources.