For the past 20 years, students in Professor Leslie Snyder’s service learning class in communication sciences have been helping national and Connecticut nonprofit and governmental organizations communicate with the public to improve public health.
The more than 30 outside organizations that have taken part in the program benefit from the students’ hard work, free research and creative ideas. The students, in turn, gain valuable work experience and the satisfaction of knowing their efforts have gone toward a good cause.
During a recent session of the semester-long class, Communication Campaigns and Applied Research, Snyder separated her students into four small groups that worked on campaigns for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Legacy Foundation, and the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.
“One of the ground rules is that they must need our services,” says Snyder, a nationally known expert who has supervised student campaigns for the National Institute for Drug Abuse, March of Dimes, Connecticut Secretary of State, Connecticut Department of Public Health, and Windham Hospital, among others. “I’ve set it up so that students are working for real organizations that are planning or thinking about doing a campaign for a particular target group.”
The organizations asked the students to design campaigns to educate people about the potential dangers of casual and social smoking; head injuries in collegiate and high school intramural sports; pre-diabetes screenings; and impairments in mature (age 60+) drivers.
Simply raising awareness isn’t enough.
“One of the points in this area is you don’t go for awareness, that’s too modest a goal,” says Snyder, a professor of communication sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and director of the University’s award-winning Center for Health Communication and Marketing. “You try to think of a behavior that you want people to do as a result of your message. So for a blood donation campaign for example, what you want is for people to donate not just to educate them about the need for blood.”
The clients appreciate the assistance the class provides with independent research and focus groups. The students benefit as well, gathering invaluable work experience and training that stands out on a resume once they’ve secured their degree.
Dan Zbin, an eighth-semester communication sciences major in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, says the class was a lot of hard work, but definitely worth it.
“This class helped me out tremendously in preparation for my future career and job opportunities in marketing,” says Zbin, a senior majoring in communication sciences. “From this course, I have developed leadership, teamwork, time management, networking, and interpersonal skills. I have been told by interviewers that this aspect of my college career is an invaluable experience and it has taken me to the next round of interviews.”
At the beginning of the semester, the students participate in conference calls with representatives of each organization to learn what they want and how best to meet their needs. At the end of the semester, they report back to the clients with research results, focus group feedback, and a clearly defined persuasion strategy to change people’s behavior.
“I’ve designed this course so that the students have to draw on what they learned in their other classes,” says Snyder, who also serves as a principal investigator for UConn’s Center for Health, Intervention, and Prevention. “I see this as a capstone project that pulls together things they have learned in theory, applied communication and methods classes, and uses those skills for the benefit of a client. The students seem to really like it.”
Diego Lopez-Vega, a senior with a double major in communication sciences and Latin American Studies, says the class gave him a greater appreciation for the work involved in creating a communication campaign.
“I took the class because I wanted to learn about communication campaigns but I never imagined I would be designing my own,” says Lopez-Vega, whose group created a casual smoking campaign called ‘Just One,’ emphasizing the negative health effects even one cigarette can have on the human body.
Students Morgan Romano, Matthew Jakobsons, and Jamie Lamborn also worked on the Just One campaign, which they later presented to officials with the American Legacy Foundation. The Foundation, which oversees the ‘National truth’ anti-smoking campaign, was created in 1999 following the Master Settlement Agreement between 46 state governments and the tobacco industry.
Working under their professor’s close supervision, the students are trained in proper research techniques and the intricacies of forming and managing focus groups. Learning about focus groups in a classroom is one thing, Snyder says. Actually recruiting a focus group and leading one for research purposes is something else.
“I have to make sure the students have done the training so they know how to act professionally, which some of them haven’t been asked to do before – ever,” says Snyder. “This is real research. They are learning skills they don’t get elsewhere in terms of focus group training and pre-testing materials training. I tell the students, ‘This goes on your résumé.’”
Romano, a senior majoring in communication sciences and business, says the class helped her prepare for enrollment in an experiential learning program as a research analyst for the business school. Despite working mostly with seasoned graduate students in her analyst role, Romano learned she’s the only one with the necessary focus group experience and survey skills the program demands.
“We practiced focus groups in [Prof. Snyder’s] class, which was really fun and interesting,” she says. “Sometimes the people pretending to be participants would have cards that told them to ‘be shy’ or ‘interrupt everyone,’ which gave the moderator a lot of things to overcome.”
The Adult Injury Prevention program at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center used the fliers and brochures UConn students created to encourage mature drivers to take a one-hour confidential assessment exam.
“It was a wonderful experience on our end,” says Garry Lapidus, director of the medical center’s Injury Prevention Center and an associate professor of pediatrics and public health at the UConn School of Medicine. “The students were terrific. They brought new energy to our efforts. In particular, they were able to conceive and develop new messages that we were able to use on one of our projects.”
Snyder says officials at the CDC are considering using some of the students’ focus group results and research findings to develop future campaigns regarding head injuries and diabetes screening.
For UConn senior Shannon Jacobson, the long hours and large workload were worth it in the end. She was part of the group that worked on the elderly driver safety campaign.
“Seeing my hard work actually being implemented has been very gratifying,” she says. “When we were first given our project, it was very intimidating. Being an undergrad, each of us did not have much exposure to really working in a professional environment like that. So when our project was accepted by our client, we really liked it. It gave me more confidence.”