College of Human Sciences Confronts Health and Well-being Frontiers

As a land-grant institution, Auburn University is committed to engaging in research that creates and applies knowledge useful for improving people’s lives. The work conducted each day by Extension faculty within the College of Human Sciences goes far beyond the campus at Auburn University, reaching across the nation and around the world.

Auburn’s HSE Faculty Spearhead Diverse Challenges

Through a variety of applied research methods, including community-engaged research (CEnR) and translational science, Auburn’s Human Sciences Extension (HSE) faculty lead prevention and intervention studies, as well as conduct assessment and evaluation that inform the design and implementation of effective communication tools, programs and practices. Specifically, Auburn’s HSE faculty who hold Cooperative Extension Specialist appointments tackle finances and post-secondary education, adolescent health, fathers’ community reentry following incarceration and early childhood education.

But what exactly is CEnR? CEnR is research occurring when academia and the community are in a two-way relationship that results in something good in the community and advances the scholar’s discipline. This occurs when scientists and community members form reciprocal partnerships that involve active participation of community members to address topics of central concern, such as improving health and well-being and reducing inequities. CEnR is critical for solving problems of everyday life with approaches that consider the experiences and input of those for whom the solutions are most essential.

The four HSE faculty tackling these health and well-being challenges include Dr. Portia Johnson in the Department of Consumer and Design Sciences and Drs. Adrienne Duke, Katrina Akande and Silvia Vilches in the Department of Human Development and Family Science. Extension professionals, including university faculty and field educators (agents) depend heavily on a cooperative relationship with community members and various partner agencies and organizations to ensure that Extension programs and resources respond to the state’s most pressing issues and needs.

Using Marketing Methods to Increase Use of FASFA and Other Financial Resources

One of those pressing needs is helping improve students’ and parents’ knowledge of and participation in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Johnson leads a project testing the effectiveness of a nudge campaign, where nudges are easy-to-implement messages intended to influence behavior. The nudges are being used in financial education as a tool to reduce financial anxiety and discomfort.

“Informational nudge campaigns are an economical, efficient and fairly easy way to place just-in-time facts and resources in the consumer’s hand,” Johnson said. “The best thing about a nudge is that it doesn’t box people into a particular choice or action. Instead, nudges empower people to make a decision for themselves that fits their unique circumstances and interests. With Alabama FAST, we are supporting and educating educators and families about FAFSA and providing students the tools to make an informed choice for themselves and their future.”

It is estimated that 35%-50% of high school students do not complete the FAFSA form, and in 2021, approximately 813,000 high school students eligible for the Pell grant did not apply, leaving $3.7 billion in unclaimed aid on the table. Johnson continues to evaluate the effectiveness of nudge campaigns using techniques like texts or emails written in a conversational tone highlighting benefits and upcoming deadlines.

Combatting Alarming Adolescent Vaping Trend

Another timely issue is finding ways to curb the alarming trend of adolescent vaping. Electronic cigarettes are the most used nicotine product among U.S. adolescents. Through her research with Escape Vapes, a youth-focused prevention program, Duke is leading a program that aims to increase adolescents’ understanding of the health risks of vaping devices and the strategies manufacturers and marketing agencies use to promote vaping products. Importantly, Escape Vapes has an educational and intervention component that empowers adolescents to avoid or end vaping activities. Her evaluation findings to-date indicate that participating youth show increased knowledge about the alarmingly high nicotine levels in e-cigarettes. Participating youth also show increased knowledge about the health impacts of vaping and report increased confidence that they will be able to avoid nicotine products, including vaping, in the future. The program has reached 17 Alabama counties. Currently, Duke is collaborating with regional agents to design a publication series to present the most recent research on vaping.

“Escape Vapes has been a highly requested program in middle schools and high schools across the state for several years,” Duke said. “I attribute our success to all the human sciences extension regional agents who have done a tremendous job connecting with school administrators and counselors. To support our programming, I have written several publications for parents and youth concerning vaping with our team, but we have a specific series coming out this fall that should be especially helpful for parents.”

Research Aids Fathers’ Reentry from Incarceration to Family Life

Akande’s research is the perfect example of Cooperative Extension because it bridges university-based research and the individuals, families and communities who apply research findings for improved well-being or quality of life. In this case, Akande’s research is applied to facilitating the successful reentry of fathers transitioning from incarceration to life in their communities and with their families. Her reentry program includes coordinating education and social services and providing support to reduce recidivism. Areas addressed include parenting, career/workforce development, financial planning and support for mental health. According to Akande, after completing the program, “reentry fathers gained parenting skills that included cooperative co-parenting, understanding the fathering role and appropriate use of discipline that corresponds with children’s developmental ages. Reentry fathers in this program increased their skills with respect to setting realistic parenting expectations and positive communication with children and co-parents.”

Enhancing Early Childhood Education in Rural Communities

Through translational science, Vilches addresses the effectiveness of early childhood educators/interventionists working in rural communities. By helping generate practical benefits for rural communities, Vilches moves research to practice, supports action steps for positive change, and fosters community partnerships to improve the quality of life for all. Recently, her team identified four sets of key characteristics of rural practice that can help prepare educators working in rural communities.

“Educators working in rural areas need to be generalists and have a broad scope of practice,” Vilches said. “They need to be authentic and seen as a whole person, not just one role. Working within rural communities requires extensive outreach to engage families who are often separated from services due to distance and limited transportation. Finally, there is the need to consider the meaning of rural culture and the embedded cultural, ethnic and racial diversity.”

The work of these HSE faculty demonstrates that Cooperative Extension continues to extend Auburn University by addressing the most pressing problems of individuals, families and communities. Alabama children, youth and families are benefiting from Extension programs and resources, and research findings. Lessons learned through these efforts can inform practices that enhance the respective Human Sciences disciplines. Human Sciences Extension will continue to engage in research that addresses current needs and issues and contributes to the public good.