A New Approach to Public Health Research: Crowdfunding for Sex Ed Project

Chen_JagannathanBy Liz Chen     Eager to transform the health, education, and lives of students across North Carolina, student researchers Liz Chen and Vichi Jagannathan turn to the public to help fund their promising research project at UNC. See www.microryza.com/projects/myhealthed for more information.

 As a former Teach For America corps member who taught high school biology and chemistry in rural North Carolina, I witnessed first hand the need to transform sex education for our youth. High rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) hinder academic achievement, or stall it altogether. I was shocked when I realized that my former high school and others in the area still delivered abstinence-only sex education despite the fact that the Healthy Youth Act of 2009 mandates comprehensive sex education for all. While members of the General Assembly debate whether North Carolina will be the 6th state in the U.S. to discuss abortion through Senate Bill 132, there are schools in our state that still fail to mention safe sex or any forms of contraceptives in sex education curricula.

As a result, there is a clear disparity in the sexual health outcomes among teens in high-resourced districts and those in low-resourced districts across the state. There is also a rift between health outcomes for those who live in urban versus rural counties. For example, teen pregnancy rates for rural Bertie, Northampton, and Vance counties are approximately 3, 4, and 5 times the rate for urban Orange County. These same rural counties have some of the highest rates in the state for STDs as well, including those for HIV infection.

Fellow Teach For America alumna Vichi Jagannathan and I want to do something to address this. We want to develop a tailored online health curriculum through our MyHealthEd project that will provide schools with a cost-effective solution to delivering comprehensive sex education to every student. After taking an initial survey on sexual health knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors, MyHealthEd software will generate an individualized set of lessons for each student. In order to maintain the students’ anonymity, teachers will be blinded from students’ survey responses and will answer questions and grade assignments online where they are still blinded from the students’ identities.

Slide1Now that the Department of Public Instruction will start testing Healthful Living Essential Standards in the 2013-2014 school year (including comprehensive sex education), this is a resource many schools will want and need. Our solution is innovative because it will track health behaviors in addition to health knowledge – something traditional health curricula neglect to do.

Despite winning first place at IntraHealth’s SwitchPoint competition for silo busting ideas to transform health, it has been difficult to find funding to support our research given that we are student researchers. We are not a 501(c)3 non-profit organization (yet), so it is nearly impossible to find a grant that we qualify for given our proposed time frame. Vichi and I would like to have MyHealthEd developed and ready to pilot by January 2014. Our goal is to publish our data online, using the open-access forum platform crowdfunding site Microryza provides.

Therefore, we are turning to the public to help us raise the necessary funds to launch this research project. As of Friday morning, 117 people had donated about $11,750 toward our $25,000 research budget. We only have 2 weeks left in our crowdfunding campaign. If we do not reach our goal, we must return all of our pledges and start over again. This new method of raising funds for research allows research to be funded that otherwise may not have the chance to be. Please help us make a positive difference by checking out our project page at www.microryza.com/projects/myhealthed. Also, please see our recent blog post in Pass the Chalk, Teach For Amercia’s national blog at http://www.teachforamerica.org/blog/why-sex-ed-matters-student-achievement.

While those of us who reside in Orange County have a say on how comprehensive education is best delivered to our students (e.g. regular classroom instruction, theater “edutainment” through UCLA Art & Global Health Center), other students in rural counties are not receiving comprehensive sex education at all. Therefore, we need to take a step back and address this bigger issue. Together, help us create a healthier generation of North Carolinians.

Liz is entering her the second year of her Masters in Public Health program at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. She will be working on MyHealthEd as part of her independent study this fall under the guidance of Associate Professor Beth Morocco in the Department of Health Behavior. Email her at lizcchen@live.unc.edu




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