The value of a living and learning laboratory
The phrase “living learning laboratory” refers to a place, whether campus or facility, that combines research with everyday life. When a researcher works in a living learning laboratory—in my case, the Texas A&M University campus—they gather data about the exact population they hope can benefit from their results. Although the idea of a living, breathing research laboratory is not a new idea. It is one that is greatly underutilized.
We research the public’s health with the intent to improve the health of a certain population or populations. As for me, I study workplace behaviors and health. A lot of my research is conducted to find ways to improve the health of office workers. Recently, I conducted workplace research with the staff who work on the Texas A&M campus. Not many campuses would allow researchers to interrupt day-to-day activities to study how to improve the health of their staff.
Traditional public health research
Traditionally, academics conduct research in a laboratory. Some public health research is conducted in the environments of their target population. However, researchers often prefer to completely control the setting. In a lab, the researcher can manipulate one or two variables at a time. They do this to demonstrate a causation between that variable and their result. Researchers do not have to worry about outside variables potentially influencing their results. Researchers can only accomplish this type of control in a laboratory setting.
However, such controlled environments may not yield results that are applicable to the messy, complicated real word.
That’s why it is an incredible opportunity to have access to a living learning campus like Texas A&M offers. Public health research within a laboratory has downsides. Researchers in a laboratory will always need to fabricate the environment. The participant’s decisions will always make decisions and behaviors in an unfamiliar room with unfamiliar lighting and unfamiliar tools such as computers, keyboards, etc. The data collected in these situations provides a good gauge of the participants’ decisions made in their everyday life. However, they are not the best way to generalize results.
A living learning laboratory
Consider this scenario: public health researchers are studying how many typing errors a workplace employee makes after remaining sedentary for three hours. They bring participants into their laboratory and make them work for three hours, then start to measure their typing errors. They collect the data and form solutions to apply it to the employee’s everyday life. However, they need to consider the participant is typing on a new-to-them keyboard in a chair that they did not pick. Of course, they may make a few more errors than normal. While applicable, the data is not necessarily the most accurate. Furthermore, the data is not the most accurate when compared to high fidelity data collected from the participants’ usual workplace.
When you study people in the comfort of their own environment over weeks, months or even years, their actions and behaviors are more representative than snapshots in a lab. Things happen in real life that researchers cannot recreate within a laboratory. Whether a distraction in the workplace or natural differences among participants, not everyone works in a uniform way. As a result, researchers should not study the public as if they are the same. In a naturalistic study setting, it is a struggle to control variables, but the data derived can hint at solutions already shown to work in the population’s environment. Real-life ebbs and flows, and great public health research considers this when creating high quality experimental designs.
Value to the participants of the study
Furthermore, if we involve part of the population that we hope benefits from our research, we create an inclusive environment for everyone on campus. Recently, I completed a study measuring the impact of a sit-stand desk on the efficiency of Texas A&M University staff. A sit-stand desk is a workplace desk that allows you to stand or sit while using a computer. It was the first study to use objective digital methods to measure sit/stand and computer use times with desktop units and the first intervention to prompt workers to move and track their responses. After this study, our team identified proven ways to increase the amount of time staff members spend on their feet during an average work day.
Many of these staff members’ jobs support research happening on campus. They feel a sense of engagement with that research when they can be participants in the study.
A living learning laboratory and research campus like Texas A&M offers an incredibly diverse and dynamic population. Researchers from across the university benefit from access to these participants. They study everything from the cognitive development of employee’s children in the campus daycare to the use of ergonomic technology in a classroom or exercise to prevent falls as we age. We have such a great opportunity to learn how to improve the health of the general public just by interacting with friends and neighbors in our own backyard.
Mark E. Benden, PhD, CPE, is an associate professor and department head for the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Texas A&M School of Public Health, where he also serves as director of the Ergonomics Center. His research interests are office worker obesity, classroom ergonomics and childhood obesity, medical device development and sedentary behavior intervention as they relate to healthy living, preventable diseases, ergonomics and workplace health.