Our study successfully captured nearly 88% of rural underserved youth who visited a metropolitan museum to visit exhibits related to health and health sciences. We learned that the vast majority (90% or more) found both the BodyWorlds3
and OHSU exhibits interesting, which may be associated with selection bias as those most interested in health and science topics may have been those more likely to decide to take such a trip. The demographics of our participants indicate we succeeded in reaching more Native American and Hispanic youth than exists in the general population in Oregon [24
]. This may be due to the focus on small rural school districts. Our population was relatively evenly split between middle school and high school students.
We were very interested in assessing how the exhibits may affect students’ intention to change health behaviors and were not surprised to learn that females were more interested in changing exercise and eating habits. This may be because they pay more attention to body image, which can be a concern as well as a positive factor. If these girls and young women are already thin, concerns would be raised about anorexia or bulimia [25
]. However, given the rapid rise in childhood obesity, being overweight could be a concern as well [27
]. It may be that boys are already exercising or eating more appropriately and did not see these areas as ones where a change in behavior would be considered. Unfortunately, we did not collect information on body mass index, which would have helped interpret this finding in detail.
Interestingly, there were higher levels of interest in behavior change among middle school versus high school students. This raises the question about whether middle-aged school children are more open to or interested in health and healthy behavior than high school students are. This seems to be an unexplored research question; a literature search found no studies addressing the relationship between youth age and openness to health behavior change.
We were initially surprised to learn that the greatest area of behavior change was in dental care habits, which was true across gender, grade and most race/ethnicity categories. The OHSU School of Dentistry exhibit was the first students encountered when exiting BodyWorlds 3 and, unlike most of the other OHSU exhibits that rotated through weekly, was designed to be unstaffed and was on display for the entire 17 weeks. The display featured graphic depictions of dental anomalies and historical dentistry tools, a demonstration featuring teeth in development at various ages, interactive games with oral health themes and hands-on ability to examine types of dental restorations, all of which were attractive to students and may have contributed to this result. One additional factor in this heightened interest may be that rural Oregon has a shortage of dentists and dental hygienists [29
Responses to the open-ended questions provide additional evidence of the potential impact of this educational format on the health behavior of youth. Statements referencing a learned health promotion behavior, from the general (“How to take care of myself”) to the more specific (“I learned that smoking is disgusting and unhealthy”; “I’m supposed to drink way more milk than I do”; “To be healthy and exercise more”) were a common answer to questions on important and interesting things learned from the OMSI experience.
Another notable point concerns understanding of the basic concept of research. Responses to the question “What is the most important thing you learned about research at OHSU?” were seldom phrased in research terms or referred directly to research results. It would be interesting to explore how middle and high school students distinguish “research” from “science” or “anatomy,” as well as the implications this may have for both education and measurement.
We found that interest in health and science careers was modest. Few students shifted from not interested before to more interested after, while almost 20% (74 students) who were interested before viewing the exhibits were not more likely to be interested in a health/science career as a result of Science in the City. This finding has been a challenge to interpret. On the one hand, those interested before may still be interested and this is unchanged as a result of the exhibit. On the other hand, the exhibits may have negatively affected their career interests. The BodyWorlds exhibit is quite graphic in its display of the human body, and we wonder if this may have affected students’ interest. Unfortunately, the way we worded this question will not allow us to determine which direction to interpret these findings.
Strengths of our study include its high response rate and the fact that missing data occurred in <5% for any response category, indicating it is possible to capture data on underserved youth using the format that we did. Limitations of the study included that it was a single post exhibit survey, which limits the interpretation of findings. Due to the rotating schedule of OHSU research exhibits, staffing and exhibit topics were not the same for each of the three Science in the City groups. Also, since selection criteria for program participation varied by district and teacher, we are unable to determine the extent to which the student participants had previously expressed interest or aptitude in health and science. Another limitation is that we assessed a specific program designed to target rural disadvantaged youth, rather than surveying youth between 10–18 years of age that visited the exhibits outside of our program. Having this comparison would have allowed for a more comprehensive assessment of this kind of exhibit and how it affects both children and young adults in and outside a program like Science in the City. Lastly, some of the cell sizes were quite small for the race/ethnicity stratification. We explored the frequencies for several possible groupings before conducting final analyses for race/ethnicity data. Understanding how ethnicity influences health beliefs, intention to change health behaviors and interests in health careers is very important, and we hope that others will attempt to replicate this work with more robust sample sizes to further add to the literature. This evaluation was the first conducted through the OHSU–OMSI partnership, and all involved learned valuable lessons on working together to conduct rigorous, high quality research that will benefit future collaborations.
In conclusion, high quality experiential learning best created by community-academic partnerships appears to have the ability to stimulate interest and influence intentions to change health behaviors intentions among middle and high school students.