November 18, 2008 — Ellen Bass had a troubled student. He was smart, but he was doing poorly in her University of Virginia systems engineering class. He seemed unable to focus on his studies.
Bass, associate professor of systems and information engineering, wanted to know why. She learned that he had lost a friend from high school as a result of alcohol poisoning. The young man was personally devastated, though he was not in any way involved in the accident.
"I suggested he turn that into something positive," Bass said.
She sent the student to meet with Susan Bruce, director of U.Va.'s Center for Alcohol and Substance Education. Bass, Bruce and the student worked out a plan in which the student would survey behaviors related to drinking and associated negative consequences and analyze the results using the techniques he was learning in his systems engineering courses.
Now, two years later, other students are continuing to merge engineering science with social behavior theory via volunteering, engineering capstone courses, independent studies and human factors-related coursework, and they are becoming increasingly sophisticated at helping to solve the problem of student binge drinking.
They are using the annual spring running of the Foxfield Races as their domain of study. The steeplechase event often is better known among students as a massive tailgate party than as a series of horse races. Surveys show that students tend to drink more at this one-day event each April than on typical weekend nights, home football games or even Halloween, another big drinking event for students.
"We've found that Foxfield attracts high-risk drinkers," Bruce said. "So we have been developing interventions. The students in this capstone project are helping to identify the most effective way to reach students on the potential dangers of excessive drinking."
Bass discovered that her students became "incredibly engaged" when they began analyzing data on a subject that was so close to them.
"Every student had a story or experience regarding drinking and Foxfield," she said. "They really wanted to see what interventions would work best.
"It was the best class I ever taught because of the level of engagement, professionalism, the quality of the work and the thoughtfulness they gave to their analysis."
Following the 2007 Foxfield races, the engineering students surveyed their undergraduate peers and discovered that while many reported drinking heavily themselves, they tended to overestimate by nearly three drinks the amount that their peers were consuming.
"This suggested that students may have been drinking more because they believed their peers were drinking more as well," Bass said.
Nearly half of the students surveyed experienced a "negative consequence" of drinking — most commonly, hangovers (nearly 35 percent). On the positive side, they found that the vast majority of students were making safe transportation choices for the event, such as using designated drivers or the free charter buses provided by event organizers.
Mathew White, a graduate engineering student who began research on the Foxfield project nearly two years ago as an undergraduate student in the capstone course, said the ongoing study is important because it applies a scientific approach to a societal problem.
"We know from our systems engineering classes that any change to a system results in other alterations to the system. For example, if you require alcohol to be carried in coolers, it may limit the amount of alcohol, but now students may bring in less food and water. So we need to factor in those kinds of effects when we look for solutions."
But even with his insight as a student, White said he found some surprises in the study results.
"We had assumed that students in fraternities would be the heaviest drinkers, but there was no significant difference between the consumption of fraternity members and non-members," he said. "In fact, we noticed that students who went with a group of people, whether Greek or not, were slightly less likely to drink excessively than students who went to Foxfield as individuals.
"It may be because people who are in a group are less likely to make fools of themselves in front of people they know."
The students followed up their survey by developing marketing materials and intervention programs designed to reduce drinking at the 2008 Foxfield Races.
Marketing materials included advertisements in the Cavalier Daily and posters placed around Grounds designed to encourage use of public transportation and first-aid facilities.
They offered free pizza and soft drinks to sober drivers. They began an educational campaign pointing out that most students do not "black out" from drinking at the races and do not drink as heavily as generally assumed. And they asked students to take care of each other.
They also worked closely with law enforcement, emergency medical services, the Foxfield Racing Association and University officials in Student Affairs. They conducted focus group sessions to measure student reaction to the marketing campaign and to collect feedback.
They are now using that information to identify and develop potentially effective messages and marketing materials for reducing drinking at the 2009 Foxfield Races. And that campaign will be analyzed and evaluated as well, by another group of undergraduates.
"Students are experts in student culture and have a particular insight to student behavior that is invaluable for this kind of study," Bruce said. "They can speak the language and create messages that resonate with their peers. They are able to design a campaign that is more likely to be effective."
Beginning with the 2009 Foxfield event, Bass and Bruce will work with their students to offer the survey at James Madison University and Virginia Tech, universities whose students also attend the Foxfield Races in large numbers.
"We would like to do a comparison between the students at these different institutions," Bruce said. "This will allow us to have a broader reach and to gain better insight to creating messages that promote healthy behavior."