Data-Powered Stories Improve Health and Science Literacy in Cincinnati Communities

How can we empower Cincinnati community members to take control of their health? A growing academic-community partnership, We Engage 4 Health (WE4H), explores an age-old solution—sharing stories.

Funded by a Science Education Partnership Award from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, WE4H offers community programs in Cincinnati neighborhoods to improve citizens’ science literacy. Project partners—including Cincinnati Children’s, University of Cincinnati, Miami University Center for Chemistry Education, and Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses in Cincinnati’s West End neighborhood—work together with community members to bring health-focused programs and stories to life.

Behind the scenes, researchers at Cincinnati Children’s use advanced software to collect community data, allowing the team to better understand and connect with members of the community and beyond.

“The process of collecting community data gives individuals a voice,” says Melinda Butsch Kovacic, MPH, PhD, co-principal investigator of WE4H and member of the Division of Asthma Research at Cincinnati Children’s. “In a data story, hundreds to millions of voices can be distilled into a single narrative that is place-based, understandable, and motivating. These stories can serve as powerful tools to help community members get to the root causes of complicated health issues that are relevant to their communities.”

Achieving these goals starts with identifying health challenges in each community. Currently, WE4H works with partners in the West End, Lower Price Hill, and Norwood. In these neighborhoods, environmental and generational factors create roadblocks to long-lasting health. Residents experience high rates of chronic diseases like asthma, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and obesity. Since health information is often complex, it can be difficult to understand and act upon, leading to worse outcomes.

To learn about these challenges from residents themselves, the team uses a research electronic data capture software called REDCap. During community health fairs, volunteers gather participants’ blood pressure, blood sugar, and other health data via REDCap forms on smartphones and tablets. Combined, this de-identified data offers a more complete picture of health strengths and challenges in the community.

“Citizens can also take an active role in data collection by participating in the Eyewitness Community Survey,” says Theresa Baker, REDCap administrator in the Division of Biomedical Informatics at Cincinnati Children’s. “Participants walk their neighborhoods and make observations on community health. We then collect and map the data and photos they take on their smartphones. This gives us a better understanding of how we can build healthier and safer environments while fostering scientific inquiry skills, community pride, and activism.”

Based on this data, the WE4H research team creates graphic novel-style STEM education materials. The interdisciplinary team of over 15 members also includes West End residents who play an integral role in the creation of stories, related activities, and evaluation surveys—supporting their design, giving backstories to each of the characters, and assessing relevance of questions and question responses.

Why character-based stories? Research shows that telling a story is one of the most powerful ways to activate our brains. Because we respond to stories as if they are actually happening to us, we get a boost of empathy, motivation, and memory. WE4H harnesses this power to engage citizens of all ages in learning about health and science.

At the center of each story and experience, the team aims to help citizens take ownership of their health. Health topics covered during the six-session Health is Happenin’ and Citizen Science RAP programs include wellness, chronic disease, nutrition, lifestyle choices, environmental exposures, and genetic predisposition. As participants build health and science literacy, they are able to ask and answer complex health questions, allowing active participation on an individual and community level.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, these skills have become more important than ever—among historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, evidence points to higher rates of hospitalization or death from COVID-19 than non-Hispanic Caucasian individuals.

To help citizens better understand the science behind public health recommendations and stay healthy, WE4H created the Coronavirus Learning Companion. Comic-based stories and hands-on activities provide an enjoyable, engaging alternative to the whirlwind of information available online. People of all ages can learn something new or refresh what they know about the importance of social distancing, face masks, handwashing, and vaccines.

The newest story in the Coronavirus Learning Companion is “Take Your Best Shot,” developed to combat common reasons for vaccine hesitancy and help community members understand the purpose and science behind COVID-19 vaccinations. Both printed storybooks and digital versions of “Take Your Best Shot” are available.

At the end of each story or activity, participants can fill out a survey to share their feedback and what they’ve learned. Housed in REDCap, the team will use the resulting data to develop stories on the science of coronavirus testing, vaccination, and the process of returning to everyday life.

“The potential of data-based stories is unlimited—from preventing chronic disease, to nurturing healthier environments, to encouraging STEM education and careers,” says Butsch Kovacic. “When the community’s collective voice is clear, actions can be decided and taken together.”

Learn more about We Engage 4 Health (WE4H).

Learn more about REDCap at Cincinnati Children’s.

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Pauline Heymann, RN, Led by Example