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Southampton Education School

LifeLab: inspiring positive health-related changes among teenagers

Interdisciplinary research led by researchers in the Southampton Education School, the Faculty of Medicine, the MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit and the NIHR Nutrition Biomedical Research Centre has enabled the design, delivery and evaluation of LifeLab, a novel hospital and school-based education programme that empowers young people to make positive lifestyle choices for their physical and mental health – now, for their future and for their future children.

Context

Early life development is a critical time for setting trajectories for health and wellbeing. The concept of LifeLab was first proposed in 2008: a research-based education programme dedicated to raising adolescents’ awareness of, and interest in, the science underpinning chronic health issues like obesity, diabetes and mental health disorders.

The aim is to encourage teenagers to make positive lifestyle changes by enabling them to discover first-hand how their diets and behaviours lay the foundations for a healthier life, and how this is linked to the health of the children they may have in future.

Research challenge

Teenagers in the classroom

The principles of LifeLab are underpinned by research led by Professor Marcus Grace, Professor Keith Godfrey, Professor Mark Hanson and Professor Hazel Inksip. Professor Marcus Grace’s resarch identified the importance of requiring students to consider socio-scientific issues during their formal science education, and showed that the introduction of structured peer group decision-making increased the quality of students’ personal reasoning.

Professor Marcus Grace and a collaborator from University of Auckland identified key components of a ‘bridging pedagogy’ that supports a ‘science for health’ literacy that laid the pedagogical foundations for LifeLab. These included: demonstrating the cultural connectedness of non-communicable diseases to communities and their relevance to students’ lives, and a transactional model engaging scientists, teachers, students and families in interactions leading to attitude and behaviour change.

The research led by Professors Godfrey, Hanson and Inksip shows that a healthy lifestyle at an early age can have profound consequences on our long-term health and that of our children.

Dr Kathryn Woods-Townsend was appointed as programme manager for LifeLab in 2008 via a Wellcome Trust award.

A permanent LifeLab facility was launched at University Hospital Southampton (UHS) in November 2013 and the research focus moved to evaluation of LifeLab’s efficacy in improving health literacy in order to refine and optimise the programme.

Overview of LifeLab

LifeLab is not simply a school trip; it is a structured education programme over two weeks. It comprises: a professional development day for science teachers; pre-visit lessons at school; an immersive visit to the LifeLab facility at UHS; follow-up lessons at school and a celebration event for all LifeLab students, parents, local health professionals and public officials.

The LifeLab facility can accommodate 32 students daily and has state-of-the art equipment that is largely unavailable in schools: an ultrasound machine to image blood flow; gel electrophoresis for DNA analysis; lung function equipment; and a Tanita machine to analyse body composition.

Stepping outside the classroom into a busy clinical environment is designed to create a buzz among the students; for many it is their first visit to a hospital and the experience can allay fears by showing hospitals to be vibrant places where active scientific research takes place.

As of December 2020, LifeLab had engaged 11,591 students and 342 teachers across 66 schools in the Wessex region. 17 schools made the significant commitment of taking entire year groups (average of 300 students) through LifeLab.

Achieving positive attitudinal changes among teenagers

A randomised controlled trial showed that LifeLab led to positive attitudinal changes to health and science learning among 13-14 year olds of all abilities, and sustained changes in students’ health literacy score. After 12 months, intervention students had greater understanding of the influences of health behaviours on their long-term health and that of their future children.

Representative feedback from students included: “If we change our lifestyle, we can more than halve our chance of getting an illness later on in life”; “Eating unhealthy is not only bad for your health but your child's also”.

The programme has inspired students to consider future careers relating to science and health, and has changed perceptions of science as an academic discipline. 

Supporting regional and national public health strategies and policy responses

LifeLab has been recognised for its contribution to the delivery of regional public health strategies. Southampton City Council described LifeLab as an ‘excellent scheme’ that is ‘making a genuine difference to the lives of children and families in Southampton’, while Hampshire County Council said it was ‘strongly encouraging all our schools to take up the excellent opportunities offered by LifeLab’.

At a national level, the resources produced for the LifeLab programme have been formally endorsed by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and the Royal Society for Public Health.

Beyond the UK, LifeLab has established partnerships with Dublin City University, Blanquerna-Universitat Ramon Llull in Barcelona and Sultan Qaboos University in Oman.

Supporting young people to manage their health and wellbeing online during COVID-19

In September 2020 Dr Kathryn Woods-Townsend secured funding from the Department of Health and Social Care to develop a ‘science for health literacy’ programme designed to help reduce COVID-19 transmission, as part of the wider commitment from DHSC for the Southampton Saliva Testing Programme, spearheaded by another LifeLab Director – Professor Keith Godfrey.

This new component of the LifeLab programme sought to build resilience among young people and develop their decision-making skills. It resulted in the co-creation of a novel COVID-19-focused curriculum and materials for 11-14 year olds, an ‘Escape from Coronavirus’ escape-room themed lesson for primary schools, and a teacher professional development unit to support the delivery of these education materials.

As a direct result of this work, Dr Kathryn Woods-Townsend’s support was requested by DHSC to support development of education materials for national roll-out to support regular mass testing for COVID-19, as part of the NHS Test & Trace programme. This work led to the development of the storicise platform for use in primary and secondary schools to help children through the impact of COVID-19.

Related projects:

LifeLab: Educating young people for lifelong health

Key Publications

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