Lab’s research a community effort

April 1, 2014

From Providence Business News - March 24, 2014

New research in the Brown University TRI-Lab is showing that families who need help with early-childhood development don’t use available services as much as they might.

Alexandra Urban, a junior with an independent concentration in educational neuroscience, has been working with Dr. Patrick M. Vivier, director of general pediatrics and community health at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, and other community partners and Brown students and faculty to develop a survey they could deploy at Hasbro to examine the issue further.

“The exciting thing about TRI-Lab is, it really brings together community service with academic coursework,” said Urban, who like other students in the program had to apply to participate. “We want to better understand why families are not utilizing services so we can increase utilization as well as improve services themselves, tailored to what families actually want and need.”

Tying such research to real-world problems and solutions involving faculty, students and community partners is the broad goal of Brown University’s continuously evolving TRI-Lab.

Launched in 2013, the lab, whose acronym refers to “Teaching, Research and Impact,” last month added two more projects that will be phased in during the 2014-15 academic year: one on healthy-food access and the other on climate control and environmental justice.

In the TRI-Lab, a three-year cycle surrounding a yearlong seminar allows participants to explore the framework and context of a particular socially complex issue, use multiple perspectives to harness solutions, and find support for individual research.

Before a particular lab actually starts, the university offers conferences that connect the school and surrounding communities around an issue to cultivate interest. After the seminar, researchers and other participants can apply for seed funding to continue to work together to build knowledge around practical solutions.

What makes the TRI-Lab different than other university programs that combine research and community outreach is the focus on specific socially complex problems and the quest across disciplines and participants’ skill sets for practical answers that could change the way community based programs and services in Rhode Island work.

“You can find a lot of research partnerships between universities and communities,” says TRI-Lab Program Director Allen Hance. “You can also find a lot of service-learning programs, where there’s a community partner and a teaching and learning component. There aren’t really that many that try to integrate research, teaching and a model of service learning and community partnerships.”

Aimee Mitchell, a senior vice president of programs and operations and Head Start director with Children’s Friend, one of the participating social-service agencies, said that although the TRI-Lab’s work takes time, “you create the right conditions for different kinds of partnerships and relationships to make that change possible.”

Stephen Buka, co-chairman of TRI-Lab and a professor of epidemiology at Brown, said “the culture of collaboration between Brown and community groups that President [Christina H.] Paxson is trying to advance” is as important as the specific real-world changes that might ensue as a result of specific research. “The high standard [of] research on a real-world problem with a potential for real impact is quite novel,” Buka said. “It’s a great model, a great direction for Brown to go.”

When Paxson announced the additional labs at a press conference on Feb. 27, she said planning for it dated back to when she first came to Brown, and it fits neatly into her 10-year strategic plan for the university.

“One thing that came out of this loud and clear was [the call for] integrative scholarship – the integration of research and education, but then adding in this other dimension: engagement in the community,” she said.

Organizers looked at models that included Harvard University’s Innovation Lab, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Community Innovators Lab, or COLab, and the Tufts College of Citizenship and Public Service. Brown’s Swearer Center for Public Service, which houses the labs at 10 Davol Square in Providence, wanted to know how others developed community partnerships, think about social entrepreneurship and whether they use an interdisciplinary approach, Hance said.

The mix of faculty, students and community partners being engaged on all three issues wasn’t evident at any of those institutions, so Brown decided to focus on that, he said. Brown also has invited undergraduates as well as graduate students to apply to participate.

Data for the topic underway – healthy early-childhood development – have come from multiple sources – including Rhode Island KIDS Count and the R.I. Department of Public Health.

“[We’re] refining research questions through an explicit conversation with the community partners about what they think needs to be known in order to improve policy and practice,” said Hance. “We’re concerned about having effective, evidence-based programs, but we want to know from our community partners if we’re barking up the right tree.”

According to Urban, partners provided data about early intervention and home visiting and how low-income families are not engaging when they have an opportunity to benefit from such services.

Besides prenatal to age 3 issues, participants in the healthy-early-childhood development lab are zeroing in on two other subtopics: parents investing in kids and the links between brain science and learning.

Kristine Campagna, chief of program development for perinatal and early childhood, said the lab’s novel approach is valuable.

“We have wonderful relationships with universities; I have three interns here,” Campagna said. “But what we’ve never done [before now] is the uniqueness of stepping out into [this] TRI-Lab environment. Stepping out of [an] office [and] into a place where you can think and be around different folks, and have ideas flow – we’ve really never had that opportunity. It’s a place you can plan and be thoughtful about this work with a focused agenda.”

Vivier, also Brown’s director of interdisciplinary graduate education programs, said Hasbro fits into the TRI-Lab’s vision of community-based problem-solving because it has been looking to figure out the ways “we can go beyond the walls of the hospital and make this state the healthiest place for kids in the world.”

What excites Vivier about possible solutions to missed pediatric appointments, for instance, is the very act of “brainstorming” to make things better for families. “How do we use that appointment,” he asked, “to connect them with an even broader range of services that can help kids?”

Brown officials could not say how much the TRI-Lab costs. Roger Nozaki, director of the Swearer Center and associate dean of the college, acknowledged that expenses included some minor renovations to Davol Square, honoraria to faculty and community partners; and funds made available for competing innovative projects.

The cohesiveness and enthusiasm of participants in the first lab has made continued investment in the concept worthwhile, Nozaki said. And demand from potential new partners, faculty and students is growing, he added.

The research program on healthy early childhood development runs during the 2013-14 academic year. But the work will extend beyond that time-frame, as survey results come in by May and with more detail, this summer, to be followed by practical solutions that could include such ideas (now in the brainstorming stage) as introducing a shuttle at Hasbro or modifying bus runs to help parents keep appointments.