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In 2012, Cornell University researchers published a study that concluded that children between 8 and 11 years old would choose an apple over a cookie if the apple had a sticker of a popular cartoon character. Childhood obesity rates had skyrocketed across the United States, and this simple solution to help children make better food choices received a lot of buzz.

It turns out the findings were too good to be true. Last October, JAMA Pediatrics, the journal that published the study, was forced to retract the study’s findings.

The problem? Faulty data and faulty conclusions.

The College of Education’s Tiffany Whittaker wants students to learn to interpret data and statistics, so she designed a new educational psychology course: Statistical Literacy and Reasoning. Whittaker is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology.

The course is open to undergraduates across the university and is taught by educational psychology doctoral students. It’s designed to introduce students to statistical applications and their interpretations in daily life.

The course can replace a math requirement and introduces undergraduate students to coursework in educational psychology—which may have the extra benefit of enticing them to earn a minor in the subject.

Students often enter the course with a “blank slate related to statistical literacy,” says Molly Cain, a doctoral student who taught the class last fall. The students don’t have preconceived notions about statistics. But they also have no real facility with deciphering statistical data.

In a world teeming with numbers and stats to prove the validity of ideas and opinion and to influence public policy, “statistical literacy is critical,” Cain says. “We want students to become critical consumers of data reported in media. We want them to be actively engaged with what they consume and to approach things with a healthy dose of skepticism.”

Whittaker says, “We want students to ask: What’s going on behind the numbers?” Specific questions can help students think critically about what’s going on behind those numbers: How were the data gathered? What methods were used? Who conducted the survey? Was bias introduced? What do you know about the sample—such as its size or population? Are there lurking or hidden variables that might explain an association?

“Correlation does not equal causation,” says Whittaker. “For example, the number of children in a home correlates with a toaster being in the home. But the toaster didn’t cause there to be more children in the home.”

“Psychology studies are difficult,” Cain says. “Often, researchers will choose subjects who are convenient to study, like college freshmen, just because they are available.” But samples should reflect the actual population that researchers want to draw conclusions about, she says, and college freshmen may not be representative of the population they actually want to understand.

That was one of the problems with the apple vs. cookie study. It was conducted with 3 to 5-year-old children, but the findings were applied to 8 to 11 year-olds—a population likely to be less motivated to choose an apple with a sticker of Elmo over a cookie.

“Data can generally be trusted if you use the correct techniques and methods,” Cain says, adding that correct interpretation is also a must. “Knowing how to analyze data will help you in any discipline. Even a rudimentary understanding means you are light years ahead.”

 

Be Loved on a beam

Photo by Elijah Macleod on Unsplash

Valentine’s Day can be challenging for those without a partner to shower them with tokens of affection. The holiday also sets up expectations for those in romantic relationships—expectations that may backfire.

Kristin NeffProfessor Kristen Neff in Educational Psychology., associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education, studies the impact of self-compassion on people’s emotional and psychological health. She says that Valentine’s Day can present a terrific opportunity for people to show themselves self-compassion, which can lead to greater emotional satisfaction and actually improve intimate relationships.

According to Neff, people who are not partnered can “ask themselves what they need and want from a partner. They may come up with answers like love, being heard, being seen for who they are. They can make a list of those things, and they can give those things to themselves.”

She recommends that people also give themselves validation and appreciation verbally.  A person can say to themselves, aloud, “I’m here for you. I care about you,” and meet that need for themselves.

Research also shows that self-touch impacts the body and mind positively. “The warmth of human touch has a positive impact, even if that touch is from your own hand,” says Neff. She recommends placing your hand over your heart while speaking words of kindness to yourself. “Doing so can help ease the sadness a person may feel about not having a partner.”

People often have high expectations of days like Valentine’s Day. Neff recommends letting go of those expectations. “A supportive and open-hearted attitude for the particular situation can be especially helpful,” she says. “And if a person is not in a relationship and wants one, it’s important for the person to accept that desire, have compassion for the struggle, and also remember that relationships can bring both joy and pain.”

In the end, says Neff, “Meeting your own needs and showing yourself compassion, acceptance, and kindness are important activities that also lead a person to be more kind and supportive to their sweetheart too.”

Self-compassion, she says, “is not only good for individuals, it’s also good for relationships too.”

Students and student teachers seated on the floor for a reading exercise.

Including Race in Literacy Instruction Opens Up the World

On a Thursday afternoon last fall, approximately 20 pre-service teachers arrived for class at Guerrero-Thompson Elementary in Austin. They were students in the College of Education enrolled in Literacy Methods, a course on reading methods in elementary school.

Their initial assignment: critically analyze non-fiction texts.

The goal was for the pre-service teachers to experience the same kinds of assignments they might give their future students.

As they balanced in chairs meant for learners half their size, they read articles in small groups and discussed and debated their peers.

They were guided by doctoral student Natalie Svrcek, while Curriculum and Instruction Associate Professor Melissa Wetzel provided assistance.

After they finished, they fetched their fourth-grade reading buddies and positioned themselves on a large colorful rug at the front of the classroom.

That’s where the read-alouds—and the fun—began.

One youngster shared with her pre-service teacher a new pun she’d learned. She’d been learning and sharing a new pun each week.

Svrcek reminded the younger students about the books she’d read and they’d discussed in the last weeks. Each book was related to UT’s tagline, What Starts Here Changes the World.

The students talked about what that meant to them: “What starts in your heart as something small can become a passion that creates positive change for others,” says one.

“Which stories do you like to hear the most?” Svrcek asked the group. “Ones with characters similar to you or ones where the character is different from you?”

One young girl says, “I like to read stories about people who are similar to me because I like to relate to what they did to fix their problem. I can do what the person did and follow in their footsteps.”

Another says, “I like to read about people different from me because I get to learn about different cultures.”

“Reading a book with characters similar to you is like looking in a mirror,” Svrcek says, “while reading one with characters who are different is like looking out a window.”

Previously, she’d read to the group, Dolores Huerta: A Hero to Migrant Workers, which recounts a story of children whose parents are migrant farm workers and are not paid fairly. In the book, Dolores works to gain fair treatment for the families.

This day they were going to hear, The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth and Harlem’s Greatest Book Store.

Students listening to a reading exercise.

Curriculum for Our Times

Although the format is similar to courses that have been taught in the College of Education for years, the intentional addition of themes of racial equity and social justice is new, says Wetzel. “After Charlottesville, the election, and anti-immigration reforms, I really thought a lot about what it means to be a teacher in these times and how to prepare our students to respond.

“Elementary teachers are often motivated by their love for students. They often want to help. But what does it mean to help?” Wetzel says.

“Many of our students will teach children who come from diverse backgrounds, who face challenges, who are refugees impacted by war or other trauma. We are challenged to take those passionate feelings of people who want to be teachers and help them understand what it means to care for these children. We want to help them shore up their abilities to be a teacher in the complex classrooms they will find in Texas,” Wetzel says.

An Opportunity for Collaboration

As Wetzel and other colleagues across the department were modifying the methods course to address these time-sensitive issues, their colleague, Associate Professor Keffrelyn Brown, had been named a UT Austin Provost’s Teaching Fellow.

The prestigious teaching fellows program empowers faculty to advance education through individual initiatives that improve teaching and learning at UT, and through participation in campus-wide events that promote the quality of education and its status in the campus culture.

Brown’s research for the two-year fellowship focuses in part on the sociocultural knowledge of race in teaching and curriculum. She wants to use her fellowship as an opportunity to facilitate working groups for faculty who are interested in infusing anti-racist teaching and practices in their coursework.

The timing was ripe for college faculty collaboration on the topic. Says Brown, the faculty working groups “meet monthly in an intentional learning community. Faculty share their work sample or challenge. We listen closely to each other. We use inquiry within the learning community. Then we add the theoretical work and revise the curriculum around race,” she says.

“We also discuss strategies to better facilitate conversations around race as well as ideas such as what it looks like to take an asset-based stance with our students,” a view that each student comes from a community with assets rather than deficits, she says.

This spring, Brown is extending her reach beyond the College of Education across the university campus.

“I personally want to develop a stronger theoretical understanding of race, better understanding and use of important theoretical constructs, and means of having better conversations about race,” Brown says.

Passion Leads to Change

Brown sought an opportunity to work with Wetzel on the methods course and Wetzel participated in these faculty learning communities last fall.

She and Svrcek added concepts to the literacy methods curriculum—racial and social equity, and intersectionality.

“Students’ experiences are complex,” Wetzel says. “We all live complex lives, experience complex factors, and have complex classrooms. Our pre-service teachers need to be able to address that.

“The Literacy Methods course’s read-alouds create a space, or tutorial, to model these ideas. Each text has an intersectionality topic—race and gender, for example—along with the theme that “’I can be anything.’ We want to disrupt racial stereotypes,” Wetzel says.

She adds, “The theme highlights that small change makes big change. We can feel disempowered and all feel oppressed by systems we are involved in, but the things we are passionate about can make big change.”

Pre-service teachers and their co-operating teachers have found the methods and conversations with students to be surprising and meaningful to their work. “I didn’t know the kids could go that deep,” one cooperating teacher says.

Change-based Teaching

Pre-service teacher Collette Nguyen, a senior who plans to teach 3rd grade, says, “I didn’t really know what to expect from the students, but they have been very insightful. I read The Memory Coat; Paper Son: Lee’s Journey to America; The Lotus Seed, and My Name is Sangoel. We explored the big questions—‘Why did people have to leave their home country to go to America? What struggles did they face and how did they feel?’ This allowed the students to develop empathy for others who had to flee because they were in danger. It opened a window for them to look into other cultures, and the severity of the situations they were put in that was out of their control.”

Nguyen adds, “By having them learn about these situations, my hope is that they will be tolerant people from the get-go and continue being people who embrace and respect differences in others. With that, they can learn to use their voice.”

Says Wetzel about her work with Brown and the incorporation of racial equity into the Literacy Methods curriculum, “As a department, anti-racist work is part of what we do. Teaching about diversity and sociocultural knowledge will be different in different times, shaped by a particular historical moment, in a particular context and place. It will never be just one syllabus.

“As knowledge in the field is changing and the social context is ever–changing, the teaching will always be change-based,” Wetzel says.

Photo of Melissa WetzelMelissa Wetzel, associate professor of language and literacy, shares research-based ideas about the literacy “crisis” and how understanding diverse literacies is a stronger educational approach.

Children come into the world with a set of language and literacy practices. Young children are always learning to name their world and discovering how language works. As they grow, they learn the words that are important to their worlds, what Paulo Freire called their “word worlds.”

When they enter school, they are often assessed in terms of their letter and word recognition, their phonemic awareness, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and letter and word writing. These are measures of literacy.

However, there are other aspects of literacy that are not measured because test developers cannot have a window into the world of words that surrounds each child. What we know, for example, is that there is not a word gap, as many researchers have found, between students who speak English as their first language and second language learners.

In fact, the number of words that bilingual and multilingual students know might far exceed the number of words that an English monolingual student knows. In addition, multilingual students have the additional knowledge of how to navigate their social worlds using more than one language!

Line of colored Candies and kid counting

Photo by Patrick Tomasso (@impatrickt) on Unsplash

One thing we are pretty sure of in the field of literacy is that teachers who know how to find out what a student knows and how they are literate—rather than gaps in their literacy—will be much better equipped to build on what the students know and help them to be successful.

Illiteracy is an unscientific concept and very political. Literacy rates were used to document literacy during a politically constructed “crisis of illiteracy” in the latter part of the 20th century. For example, under the Reagan Administration, many organizations began receiving funding from the federal government for programs designed to provide basic literacy education for those people who were identified as illiterate.

Like other “crises,” a crisis of illiteracy is dangerous for many reasons, primarily because it positions some people’s languages and literacies as deficit and narrowly defines what it means to be literate. It positions students who leave school as illiterate, which is often untrue, and shifts responsibility and blame onto the young person who may have been miseducated in many ways.

In a binary of literacy/illiteracy, we have to ask, “what counts/doesn’t count as literacy” and “who benefits from literacy programs and initiatives,” among other important critical questions. In a dynamic society in which what it means to be literate is always changing, it is hard to see how narrow measures of literacy (reading and writing assessments) might be meaningful to public conversations or policymakers in productive ways.

Organizations that are focused on literacy often rely on discourse from the literacy crisis to make claims about literacy rates and why they are a problem. This discourse appeals to those who want to help—through volunteering and monetary support. That can be a good thing. The danger, however, is that each time a literacy crisis discourse is evoked, dominant and narrow views about what counts are reproduced. That means we may move further and further away from understanding diverse literacies, what and how students know, and what literacies will support them most for participation in a changing world.

Wetzel is Judy Spence Fellow for Excellence and Associate Chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. Her research and teaching focus on how pre-service teachers integrate critical literacy and culturally relevant practices into their field-based literacy teaching experiences. 

-Feature photo of books by Patrick Fore (@patrickian4) on Unsplash

Two girls discussing the books they are reading.

Photo by Christina S. Murrey

Because of the foundational importance of literacy to education, teachers are increasingly expected to integrate reading across various subjects, including science. But choosing appropriate texts can be a challenge for teachers, who may not be well-versed in how to critically evaluate them.

Headshot of Dr. Petrosino

Anthony Petrosino

Associate Professor Anthony Petrosino of the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin’s STEM Education program and doctoral student Sarah Jenevien have developed a solution that addresses this challenge.

The two collaborated with the college’s Office of Instructional Innovation to develop an online Children’s Science Book Database, where pre-service elementary teachers post reviews of science-related children’s books. The database was created in 2014 and has become part of pre-service teachers’ coursework within their science methods class.

“The review template encourages pre-service teachers to engage critically with the texts in terms of their scientific content, fostering scientific process skills and identifying potential stereotyping or gender bias,” says Petrosino.

Pre-service teachers are asked research-based questions. They must critically assess the literature for processes, content, readability, engagement, and interest. Their reviews provide basic information, such as a summary of the book and the maximum and minimum grade levels it would be appropriate for.

For example, one student wrote of the book Volcanoes, “The book could be considered slightly gender-biased because only images of male geologists are included. However, considering the publishing date, it’s most likely that only men were given credit for the science discoveries at the time.”

Currently, over 130 children’s books have been reviewed for the database, including titles such as Pluto’s Secret, A Butterfly is Patient, What Makes Day and Night? and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, which one reviewer noted has many positive aspects, but is not based on sound scientific principles, “as it is impossible for food to fly down from the sky three times a day.”

“By searching the database, pre-service teachers can easily find books that match their grade level and subject area, which decreases the difficulties associated with integrated lesson planning and increases the likelihood that they will use children’s books during their field teaching experiences,” says Petrosino. “This work helps teachers become critical consumers of children’s literature.”

The database is available for educators and the public to view reviews.

 

 

Bridge

Photo by Carmelo Paulo R. Bayarcal from Wikimedia Commons

This August, Victoria M. Defrancesco Soto, currently a professor at The University of Texas at Austin, where she teaches in the Department of Mexican-American and Latino Studies, gave the keynote address for the 8th Annual Texas Higher Education Symposium. The symposium was hosted by the College of Education’s Educational Leadership and Policy Department (ELP) at The University of Texas at Austin.

In “Bridging the Political Divide: Educators on the Front Line,” Soto spoke directly to over 100 educators in attendance about how what happens in their classrooms can help bridge a widening political and societal divide.

“In classrooms,” said Soto, “diverse groups come into contact. Shared contact can stem in-group/out-group divisions.” That intergroup contact, the very presence of others, starts the process of bridging.

To facilitate bridging, she explained, certain components are necessary: equal status of individuals, cooperation, common goals, and support by institutional authority. “Schools are ground zero for this,” she said.

“Education reduces prejudice through the social norms that are introduced,” said Soto. “For example, a person with a preference unlike yours deserves respect, and you may have other things in common. Smalls steps inoculate against polarization.” In addition, she said, “Learning about the history and lives of others also helps humanize them.”

Soto urged educators to help their students “get uncomfortable. Help them talk about different views rather than retreat to enclaves with pre-established conditions and content. Let things get uncomfortable, and moderate as an educator.”

“You as an educator have more power than almost any other profession to bridge the cultural divide.”

This was the second year that the ELP department hosted the Texas Higher Education Symposium, which brought together several hundred educators from public, private, and two-year colleges around Texas.

 

Students writing tips on a whiteboard

Photo by Christina S. Murrey

 

Many teachers and students in the Houston and surrounding areas are only just beginning to return to school in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. For some, schools will remain closed, and students are being redirected to other locations. Many families lost their homes; some lost their livelihoods. Meanwhile, families and educators in Florida are just beginning to assess the impact of Hurricane Irma.

The effects of natural disasters impact the lives and the psyches of students, and caregivers and teachers often struggle with how to respond.

Erin Rodriguez, an educational psychology assistant professor at The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education studies stress and coping in children. Here, she provides tips to caregivers and teachers to consider for helping children following a natural disaster.

Tips for Caregivers:

  • Emotional and behavioral difficulties following a natural disaster are not uncommon. Children may have symptoms of posttraumatic stress and depression, as well as conduct problems (i.e., “acting out” behaviors).

 

  • Children may also experience academic and social difficulties. These problems may be related to emotional difficulties, but can also result from disruptions in schooling and daily activities due to the disaster.

 

  • Children who have greater access to social support, through parents, family members, teachers, friends, and other supportive adults, are more likely to show resilience in the long term.

 

  • Following a disaster, adults should provide ways for children to return to daily routines and activities as much as possible, including school and extracurricular activities. Returning to these activities can reduce the risk of ongoing disruptions and provide multiple avenues for social support.

 

  • Some children are at increased risk for emotional and behavioral difficulties following a disaster. This risk is increased if they experienced more immediate threats (e.g., threats to life) during the disaster, face ongoing stressors (e.g., losing their home/relocation) from the disaster, and if their parents/caregivers also experience emotional difficulties from the disaster.

 

  • While symptoms can get better for some children over time, children with increased risk may experience more severe and lasting difficulties. These children can benefit from evidence-based treatments, including treatments that use cognitive-behavioral strategies. Evidence-based treatments are particularly effective when children can access them within the first few months following the disaster.

 

Head shot of Dr. Erin Rodriguez.

Erin Rodriguez – Assistant Professor

Says Rodriguez, “After a natural disaster, adults sometimes assume kids are resilient, but that may not always be the case. If a parent or teacher notices signs of anxiety, or mood or behavior changes in the weeks or months after a disaster, they should seek out mental health professionals who can assess whether treatment is needed. The good news is that there’s strong research supporting the benefits of early intervention for kids who need it.”

Graphic of mountains

When Special Education doctoral student Lisa Didion was a special education teacher for students with various disabilities in Missouri, she saw her classroom as “a never-ending research experiment.” She enthusiastically talks about her attempts to advance her students to an academic and behavioral level on track with their typically-developing peers.

Didion had already earned a master’s degree in Special Education from Vanderbilt University, with a major in behavior disorders, where she developed a penchant for collecting meaningful data on students’ academic progress and behavioral skills. She often used her interest in data collection as a way of motivating herself.

“One day, on my afternoon run, I began thinking about how my own exercise data motivates me to improve my performance,” she says. She thought collecting that kind of data might be motivational for her students too. “I began teaching my students about data by sharing my own. It was important to illustrate for my students that performance can increase and decrease, and to model for them the appropriate emotional responses to these changes. My main objective was to teach the importance of tracking data to monitor progress.”

Didion paired her teaching of data and its relevance to a science unit her class was doing on landforms. “The intervention taught students about their own data, visualized through a line graph, and explained like climbing a mountain,” she says.

And with that, Data Mountain was born.

“It was my biggest ‘Aha!’ teaching moment,” she says. “I created a bulletin board with construction paper and painters’ tape. My students’ faces on cartoon hikers started their ascent of Data Mountain, climbing a peak each time they reached a goal.” Each Friday, she conferenced individually with students to share their academic and behavioral data. “They connected that their behavior while completing a task influenced their performance, illustrated through their data. They began to improve more quickly on weekly progress monitoring assessments.  Every year after, for a range of data types, most students showed progress when I used Data Mountain.”

An upper-elementary teacher saw the influence Data Mountain had on Didion’s students and began using the procedure for reading fluency in her classroom, with similar results. The idea began to spread.

In fact, Data Mountain became influential throughout the school district and Didion’s innovative teaching earned her Teacher of the Year.

Jessica Toste and her student Lisa Didion

Lisa Didion and Jessica Toste

Didion realized that there was not much written in the education literature on this type of intervention. Some of the research she did find was written by Jessica Toste, assistant professor in the Department of Special Education, whose specializes in motivation research related to students with disabilities. Didion’s desire to pursue a doctorate in the subject led her to the College of Education to study with Toste, who has become her advisor.

Together, Didion and Toste have been conducting a pilot project using Data Mountain as a reading fluency intervention with third-grade students in the Austin area.  Says Toste, “Through this type of work, we hope to explore ways to intensify interventions. We want students to become more autonomous and engaged in their learning, so that they can fully benefit from instruction. This pilot study is a first step. Lisa is passionate about teachers and students using data in meaningful ways, and it has been exciting to empirically test an intervention that organically grew from her teaching practice.”

 

They hope to scale up to a larger investigation, and Didion intends to publish the research, present at conferences, and conduct workshops with teachers to share their methods.

“My ambition was to put science behind my teaching practices and encourage teachers to understand the science behind theirs.”

“When I began to pursue my doctorate, my primary goal was to explore the interventions that were inspired by my students. My ambition was to put science behind my teaching practices and encourage teachers to understand the science behind theirs.  I am so grateful that Dr. Toste supports me in this endeavor, challenges me to continue to ask questions as I dive further into the research, and helps me to take full advantage of the opportunities here.”

POST TAGS:

The proverb, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” has been around since the 17th century. Over three hundred years later, it’s still widely understood that play is important to rejuvenation and creativity.

Education researchers also understand that, for children, play is essential to learning.

Experts like Christopher Brown, an associate professor at the College of Education of The University of Texas at Austin, are alarmed by the sharp reduction in play time for kindergarteners.

In Brown’s recent op-ed, published in the Conversation and Yahoo News, “Researchers have demonstrated that five-year-olds are spending more time engaged in teacher-led academic learning activities than play-based learning opportunities that facilitate child-initiated investigations and foster social development among peers.”

This shift is alarming, says Brown, because, “focus on rules can diminish children’s willingness to take academic risks and curiosity as well as impede their self-confidence and motivation as learners – all of which can negatively impact their performance in school and in later life.”

Christopher Brown during the recording session for Academic Minute.

Associate Professor Christopher Brown

Brown’s research-based perspective is becoming a call-to-action among the public. He has appeared on programs like the Academic Minute and most recently on Wisconsin Public Radio’s On Point broadcast.

Says Brown, a former kindergarten teacher, “No one … is advocating for the elimination of academics in kindergarten. … Kindergartners require more balanced learning experiences that nurture their development and their desire to learn and interact with others. This will improve their performance in school and assist them in seeing school as a place that will help them and their friends be better people.”

 

Woman smoking an e-cigarette

New nicotine delivery products change game for those working to lower tobacco use among young

BEFORE BIG TOBACCO WAS HIT with massive state-initiated lawsuits in the late 1990s, tobacco use among teens and young adults was so common that some high schools still maintained designated smoking areas for students. After the states won their lawsuits, the industry was forced to set up funding in perpetuity for programs to prevent smoking and to provide resources to help smokers quit. In 2013, 14 Tobacco Centers of Regulatory Science (TCORS) across the nation were established.

Texas TCORS on Youth and Young Adults, led by Cheryl L. Perry, of the University of Texas School of Public Health, is one such center. Comprised of three University of Texas sites—UT Austin, UT School of Public Health, and UT MD Anderson Cancer Center—the TCORS on Youth and Young Adults focuses its research on the impact of tobacco and tobacco marketing on the most vulnerable age groups for beginning tobacco use and becoming addicted: adolescents and young adults.

The center has found that while cigarette smoking has decreased among this age group, use of alternative tobacco products is increasing at an alarming rate.

In short, the fight against nicotine and tobacco is far from over.

The Good Old Days Go Up in Smoke

The “good old days” is how Alexandra Loukas, the Barbie M. and Gary L. Coleman Professor in Education in the College of Education, refers to the early tobacco landscape.

Loukas, who studies health behavior in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education (KHE), is the principal investigator for the Tobacco Marketing and Alternative Tobacco Use project, one of the center’s three research projects that focuses on young people’s nicotine and tobacco usage and the marketing aimed at them.

“Tobacco products used to come in a limited number of forms, like cigarettes, cigars, snuff, and chewing tobacco,” she says. In 2009, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act became law and gave the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate the manufacture, marketing, and distribution of cigarettes, roll-your-own, and smokeless tobacco products.

But while government began more intensive regulation and focus on traditional tobacco, myriad alternative tobacco and electronic nicotine delivery systems—also called e-cigarettes— flooded the market.

Loukas says that tobacco companies were “unprepared when lots of mom-and-pop shops started selling e-cigarettes,” devices that often look like cigarettes but use a battery to heat a nicotine vapor. E-cigarettes are available in more than 7,000 flavors and are often marketed as alternatives to cigarettes, a way to slow or stop smoking, or for use in places like bars or restaurants, where smoking is banned.

And they aren’t less dangerous to health. Not only is regular nicotine use—even through an e-cigarette— associated with respiratory problems, cardiovascular disease, and various cancers, new evidence suggests nicotine interferes with adolescent and young adult brain development.

E-cigarettes have divided the public health community. “Many public health professionals believe that e-cigarettes may reverse declining trends in tobacco use by re-normalizing cigarettes and introducing kids to a supposed safe alternative.

“E-cigarettes have divided the public health community.”

“Others, however, believe e-cigarettes may help smokers quit their habit,” Loukas says.  They’re also concerned that overregulation of e-cigarettes might put small companies out of business and cause the large tobacco companies, which have more resources and experience to fight regulation, to gain ground.

With no regulation of the industry and limited knowledge of the chemicals in the ubiquitous flavors, no one really knows how safe, or dangerous, e-cigarettes are.

And according to research, from November 2012 to June 2013, e-cigarette companies spent $39 million marketing these products, which have a particular appeal to young people.

An Intro to Nicotine Addiction for the Young

Many Millennials, people 18 to 34 years old, grew up viewing cigarette smoking as a disgusting and dangerous habit. That’s due in part to “the media promotions such as the Truth campaign, which decreased tobacco use among young people by showing how the tobacco industry has manipulated and targeted youth and young adults,” says KHE Associate Professor Keryn Pasch, a coinvestigator for the project.

From November to june 2013 alone, e-cigarette companies spent $39 million marketing their products. High school students use of e-cigarettes grew 12% between 2011 and 2014

Despite smoking’s decline in recent years, tobacco use is still the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the United States.

Eighty-five percent of those who become addicted to nicotine try it before age 18, and 99 percent who become addicted do so by age 26, according to research.

The college years are the ones in which young people transition from regular use to addiction. That’s why the rise in college students’ use of alternative nicotine products is disturbing. “Youth are drawn to e-cigarettes,” says Loukas, “because they view them as a safer alternative.”

And according to the research, e-cigarettes might serve as an introduction to the array of nicotine products, with 11.5 percent of students using multiple tobacco products, like hookah, which is also growing in popularity among college students.

What’s Being Done

The $20 million dollar grant that funded the Texas TCORS is helping UT researchers track changes in college students’ tobacco use and examine the role of tobacco marketing.

Photo of Keryn Pasch

Keryn E. Pasch

Photo of Alexandra Loukas

Alexandra Loukas

The center is in its third year collecting data from students at 24 two-and four-year colleges in Texas. Funding by the Texas Department of State Health Services to Loukas and her colleagues contributes to the development and implementation of college-based programs to prevent tobacco use. These prevention programs are being implemented in an additional 21 two- and four-year colleges in Texas.

Pasch leads work that examines the various ways tobacco is marketed to students. She and her students assess outlets that sell tobacco products around each campus. They document and describe what tobacco products stores sell, which bars students attend, and how much tobacco students might encounter in their environment.

According to Pasch, the FDA is building an arsenal of data to pass regulations to regulate marketing, and “in order to get policy change we have to add evidence to the stockpile,” she says.

Her team is helping gather that evidence, and in May, the Obama Administration announced it will begin regulating e-cigarettes, hookahs, and premium cigars like regular cigarettes— barring those under 18 from purchasing the products, adding warning labels and preventing them from being given away as samples.

In addition to evidence-gathering to facilitate policy change, Pasch, who also studies the effects of food marketing on K-12 students, explains that “we need to consider the environment. We focus on individual choices and behavior, but people don’t realize how much of their world is influenced by marketing in their environment. Our research is looking for links between the students’ environment and what they use.”

Lara Latimer, lecturer and project coordinator in KHE, provides college student groups with resources, such as ways to assess and strengthen tobacco policies on their campus, a web-based curriculum, and coordinated anti-tobacco marketing campaign materials and messages to help them combat the problem.

The peer-to-peer communication about the risks of the various kinds of tobacco use and the dangers of hookah and e-cigarette use in particular is key to helping students make better choices.

In the end, says Loukas, the message that young people need to understand is simple: “No matter the product, a smoker is a smoker is a smoker, and all of these products have a negative impact on health.”