Long gone are the days of regularly going to the doctor for every ache and pain. Students in the information studies college’s HackHealth program are using research skills to improve their community’s health. 

The information studies college developed HackHealth to teach middle school students attending Title I schools — those in districts with high numbers of underprivileged students — how to use the Internet to research health topics important to them. The program, led by information studies college professors Mega Subramanian and Beth St. Jean, brings together a group of about 10 students after school once a week for eight weeks. Participating students select a topic, learn how to research and present their findings to the class using PowerPoint or another medium. 

The program launched in the fall at William Wirt Middle School in Riverdale Park and is now also in progress at Buck Lodge Middle School in Adelphi. HackHealth is preparing to launch a third location at Charles Carroll Middle School in New Carrollton.

Students are asked to research topics that are significant to them, such as a personal issue or problem affecting a family member. One student with Type 1 diabetes found new ways to maintain a healthy blood sugar level by adjusting his eating habits.

Another student’s mother who experiencing lower leg and foot pain. Through her research, the student found the pain was caused by her mother’s job, which kept her on her feet, and she found ways for her mother to prevent and alleviate the pain.

“The program gives them a really special confidence,” said Rebecca Oxley, a librarian at Buck Lodge Middle School. “Kind of like a self potency about their ability to care for not only their own health as young people but to influence the people that they care about to also care about their own health.”

The program teaches students research skills, such as how to identify credible sources. Most students come into the program with very little research ability beyond basic Google searches, and Subramanian said their skills improved greatly during the eight weeks.

“It’s really fascinating to know how these kids come to our program,” she said. “By the time they leave the program, they have all the necessary skills that they need to find out information.”

HackHealth aims to reduce health problems in underserved communities that are often caused by lack of information, Subramanian said.

“The kids who need this type of instruction the most are the kids who are from disadvantaged backgrounds, because they don’t have access to information at home,” she said.

St. Jean said an important aspect of the program is reaching kids in their early years. 

“There’s a lot of health disparities that are caused by different levels of information literacy,” St. Jean said. “If we can work with these kids before these huge health disparities start to really develop, we develop their health literacy skills and their ability to find relevant information and make sure that it’s credible.”

Subramanian and St. Jean want HackHealth to be a model for other schools to follow. They are working on creating modules and lesson plans librarians can easily use to implement the program, and they have been presenting them at school librarian conferences across the country.

Natalie Greene Taylor, an information studies doctoral candidate and HackHealth team member, said HackHealth is one of the many ways the school aims to positively affect its community through research.

“We really try to do research that has an impact, research that is directly impacting their local communities, underserved populations,” Taylor said. “This project is a really good example of that sort of research.”