Vital contributions

When Angelica Grizzle started college, her idea of research was scientists in lab coats looking into microscopes. When she found out that there were opportunities for undergraduate students to work with young kids on school readiness research, she jumped at the opportunity.

Grizzle says the research seed was planted during her first year at Oregon State University when she saw a student demonstrating the Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulder task, a Simon Says-like game that is designed to test a child’s ability to self-regulate. OSU professor Megan McClelland uses the task widely in her research, and she and others have shown that self-regulation, or a child’s ability to listen, follow directions, and control their behavior, is a key indicator of academic success. The idea inspired Grizzle, a double degree major in education and human development and family sciences who plans on becoming a teacher after graduation.

Angelica Grizzle
School readiness shows up in the head-toes-knees-shoulder test used by Angelica Grizzle at the Hallie E. Ford Center. (Photo: Karl Maasdam)

“It was intriguing to hear about how a simple game for children could be a good predictor for kindergarten readiness and academic success in the future,” she says.

The Lacey, Wash. native is now a part of a research team led by McClelland, who directs the Healthy Development in Early Childhood core in the new Hallie E. Ford Center for Healthy Children and Families. This new OSU research center, funded by a gift from Oregon philanthropist Hallie Ford, brings together experts working on crucial public health issues such as childhood obesity, early childhood learning, risky behaviors and teenage development.

It also brings students the chance to do research that makes a difference. Rick Settersten, endowed director of the Hallie E. Ford Center, says that because the center is focused on the health of children and youth, the contributions of student apprentices make its research and outreach missions all the more meaningful. About 24 undergraduate and 14 graduate students are working on research directly tied to the Hallie Ford Center, although many more students are working with researchers who are connected in some way to the center.

“Students have a stake in what we’re doing too,” he says. “Students like Angelica have the chance to work on projects that have real implications for our schools and communities. These experiences not only give them a behind-the-scenes view of the research process, but even better, it often becomes a gateway to graduate degrees or a career. ”

Grizzle is working with McClelland and a team of researchers on a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to test the validity of the Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulder task. The project will adapt the self-regulation measure as a school readiness screening tool that can be easily used by teachers, practitioners, and researchers to identify children who would benefit from additional support in self-regulation.

Grizzle’s research was first funded through the College of Public Health and Human Science’s Undergraduate Research Award Program and is now funded through the university-wide Undergraduate Research, Innovation, Scholarship and Creativity program. She has even developed her own research project, looking at if children with siblings perform better on the Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulder task, as a spinoff of McClelland’s research.

Grizzle is administering the Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulder task to preschool-age children both in Corvallis, and for a separate project in Salem as well. In all, the research team will work with more than 500 children.

“Being able to create a measure that can assess school readiness that can help future researchers and possibly be a tool for teachers is such an amazing opportunity,” Grizzle says. “I hate the idea of a child struggling when there could be help for them out there.”

In addition to the early childhood core, the Hallie E. Ford Center has three other core areas including Parenting and Family Life, Healthy Lifestyles and Obesity Prevention in Children and Families, and Healthy Development for Youth and Young Adults.

Like Grizzle, Senna Towner, a Ph.D. student in public health, was drawn to OSU because of the opportunity to do research that has an impact on the health and development of individuals. Towner received a master’s degree from, and later worked for, The University of Montana. She came to OSU to pursue a doctorate because she was drawn to the HIV prevention research experts working in OSU’s public health department. In Montana, Towner had the opportunity to travel the state talking with HIV-positive individuals about their quality of life, their health needs, and their take on effective prevention. One recurring theme she found in her conversations was that males and females considered different ideas for HIV prevention.

“The way gender roles play a part in how people protect, or don’t protect, themselves is very interesting to me,” she says

Towner is part of the research team led by Peggy Dolcini, an associate professor of public health whose work is focused on HIV and STD/STI prevention. Dolcini has two federally-funded projects under way at the Hallie Ford Center, one $1.4 million project focused on how effectively an intervention program by the Centers for Disease Control is being delivered, and another $1.4 million project focused on African American urban youth and the social underpinnings that impact their sexual health. According to Dolcini, the work on adolescents has a significant focus on gender and will lead to new interventions for this population.

Towner is conducting qualitative analysis and assisting with study coordination for Dolcini’s research, and is building her own dissertation from the project. She plans to explore the relationship dynamics of African American adolescents, including typical gender roles that potentially influence their sexual health.

“I love learning about individual and relationship dynamics and how they might be helpful in terms of preventing HIV/STIs,” Towner says.

As for Grizzle, she says the opportunity to do research that might have an immediate impact in communities across the nation is more than she hoped for when she first applied for the Undergraduate Research Award Program.

“This is a crucial time period where they are developing those skills that will serve them the rest of their life,” she said. “I don’t know if I would have had this kind of opportunity to really make a difference if I hadn’t come to Oregon State University.”