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OSU Receives $4.7 Million USDA Grant to Help Oregon Teens Stay Healthy

April 2, 2013


April 2, 2013 – Oregon State University has received a grant of nearly $5 million to develop an obesity prevention and healthy lifestyle program for teenagers.

Unlike many programs that focus on treatment of children already at risk of obesity, this new program will aim at active high school-age teens involved in 4-H soccer programs in Oregon.

OSU project directors Siew Sun Wong, an assistant professor of nutrition and a specialist with the Extension Service, and Melinda Manore, a professor of nutrition, were awarded $4.7 million to start the program, called “The WAVE Ripples for Change: Obesity Prevention for Active Youth in Afterschool Programs Using Virtual and Real-World Experiential Learning.” It was awarded by the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“These youths are active now, but what happens when they don’t have a team sport to motivate them?” Manore said. “Many parents of active teens allow their kids to eat unhealthy food, because they don’t worry about their weight. This is about building healthy behavior that becomes part of their life.”

The intervention program will begin June 2013 in three Oregon counties – Marion, Polk and Yamhill. About 500 teens ages 15 to 19 will engage in three different life skills programs developed by OSU. One of the programs will be a real-world scenario where teens will learn about growing their own food, cooking healthy, preparing inexpensive meals at home, and staying active.

The other two programs use new cutting-edge technology to create virtual environments, led by Jon Dorbolo with OSU’s Technology Across the Curriculum, where teens will practice these same skills but as an avatar in a 3-D virtual world. One virtual world will be “realistic,” based on the real environment; the other will be a fantasy world where anything is possible.

“Kids are into technology and they spend a lot of time with it, so we want to know if there is a way to tap into that and develop a program that can be used both at home and in the classroom to encourage healthy behavior,” Manore said.

Wong, who is an expert on the use of technology to improve dietary habits, said the virtual world can be used to reach out to teens and discover their skills and potential. 

“Jake, the character in the movie ‘Avatar,’ saw how good this virtual world can be and it inspired him to make a change, which is the idea behind this part of the intervention,” Wong said. “Likewise, the idea is to create an ideal virtual world where participants can experience creative learning, be inspired and motivated to transform this positive experience back to the real world to make it a better place.”

At the end of the five-year project, OSU biostatistician Bo Zhang will lead the researchers to examine the data to see which of the three programs – the real world, the virtual “real” world, and the virtual fantasy world – resulted in better outcomes.

The research team will measure the teens’ body mass index, physical activity levels (using sensor and cloud infrastructure developed by OSU engineering faculty Patrick Chiang and Christopher Scaffidi), and their ability to meet USDA’s Choose MyPlate recommendations.

According to the researchers, the goal is to see how teens who are already physically active due to involvement in team sports can develop lifestyle skills that will stay with them past school age. Part of the intervention will include working with the young people’s parents or primary caregivers to ensure they understand about proper nutrition and exercise.