Aspire Internal Grants Support Varied Faculty Research

Ball State University’s junior faculty research could have great impacts on countless lives. The 2014-15 junior faculty research competition awardees are working to improve fitness technology like Fitbits, studying consumers’ trust and misperceptions of news based on their news source preferences, and helping architects and interior designers create classrooms that meet the needs of students with autism.

The Aspire internal grant program’s Junior Faculty Competition, administered by Sponsored Projects Administration, helps support such research and creative endeavors. The primary purpose of this competition is to give junior faculty seed money for research findings and projects that will lead to further support from external funders. Those in their first five years of a tenure-track appointment are eligible to apply.

Measuring calories burned in everyday life

Americans’ idea of fitness is changing. Instead of simply counting hours at the gym or calories in the kitchen, we’re using technology to measure the energy we use in our everyday activities—at work, at the store, at home, everywhere. We’re recognizing that every “bit” of activity counts toward a healthy lifestyle, and that has caught the attention of one Ball State researcher.

Fitbits are a popular tool for measuring calories burned during everyday activities, also known as free-living energy expenditure. “Free-living energy expenditure is the amount of energy that a person uses as he or she undergoes normal, daily activities in the real world—not in the laboratory,” according to Alex Montoye, assistant professor of clinical exercise physiology.

Montoye says wearable activity monitors like Fitbits are good for estimating activities like walking, but they’re not so great at measuring the energy used during other activities of daily living. Preliminary results of Montoye’s research show that consumer-based activity monitors tend to underestimate steps and the amount of calories burned, especially during higher-intensity activities and household activities, such as sweeping, vacuuming, and doing laundry.

“Most research studies looking at the accuracy of activity monitors are conducted in the laboratory because it allows researchers to exert a high degree of control over activities that participants perform as well as allowing for use of high-quality criterion measures of energy expenditure,” Montoye says. “However, recent research has shown that activity monitors that work well in the laboratory may work very poorly in the real world, where there is no restriction on activities that people perform.

“We know that physical activity and exercise are good for health. However, actually measuring how active people are is surprisingly difficult, and the method we use to measure physical activity results in dramatic differences in how active we think people are,” he says. “For example, almost 50 percent of U.S. adults claim to meet the national physical activity guidelines (150 minutes a week of moderate or vigorous physical activity) when asked via questionnaire, but less than 5 percent meet guidelines when assessed using a physical activity monitor.

“We need to improve the ways we measure physical activity in order to understand how active people are and target interventions toward people who are achieving low levels of physical activity.

“I hope that we can improve the accuracy of physical activity monitors so that we can have a better idea of how active people are and have valuable information to use to devise ways of getting people to be more physically active to improve health.”

Montoye received an Aspire junior faculty award to assess how correct activity monitors are in the real world. “My current research is looking at the accuracy of several different kinds of accelerometer-based physical activity monitors for measuring energy expenditure while performing a wide variety of sedentary, household, ambulatory, and exercise activities in both the laboratory and in the real world,” says Montoye.

From May 2015 through December 2016, Montoye will be working with thirty research participants. “Participants will be fitted with accelerometers on their hips, wrists, thigh, and ankle for two four-hour sessions while in their free-living environment,” says Montoye. A research assistant will follow participants in their everyday settings to “observe and record the time-stamped order and sequence of activities performed by the participant,” he says.

So far, Montoye has found that machine learning, a pattern recognition approach to modeling data that has applications in many areas, improves the accuracy of energy expenditure measurements from wearable physical activity monitors. “However, machine learning is considerably more complex than other modeling techniques,” he says, “and its current complexity may preclude it from becoming a mainstream approach to modeling data from activity monitors. Therefore, my current work is focused on finding ways to simplify machine learning models enough that they can be used by people who don’t specialize in activity monitor research.”

Students who assist with Montoye’s research gain experience beyond the classroom. “It’s very rewarding getting to help students learn about the research process, and the students I’ve worked with have been incredibly helpful in all the stages of data collection, analysis, and dissemination of findings. A few students have presented our work at regional conferences with plans to present at national conferences in the near future.”

Montoye is grateful for the campus research environment and resources. “The Human Performance Laboratoryat Ball State is celebrating its 50th anniversary this fall, making it one of the oldest exercise physiology labs in the country. We have excellent support from both faculty and administrators within the school, college, and at the university level. Additionally, the Clinical Exercise Physiology Program in which I work runs the Adult Physical Fitness Program, one of the oldest university-run exercise programs in the country. We have years of data available for use as well as many members who are willing to be involved in research studies. It’s a wonderful environment that promotes high-quality scholarship. I am privileged to be able to contribute a small piece to the lab’s outstanding reputation.”

News source trust and misperceptions

Fox News or CNN. Which one are you more likely to believe?


These kinds of questions intrigue Robin Blom, assistant professor of journalism. He received an Aspire junior faculty research award to support his work in bias perceptions toward news sources. This work will run from May to December 2015.

“Expose two groups of people to the same truthful headline, but tell one group the headline is from CNN and tell the other group the headline is from Fox News. Even though the information is—literally—the same, the groups will consider the headline for one outlet more believable than when it’s attributed to a competitor,” Blom says.

“I’m fascinated by people who believe things that aren’t true and people who don’t believe things that are true,” he says. “There could be negative consequences for themselves or others when people make decisions based on misperceptions. That’s why this is a fascinating research area. Lots of work to do!”

For his current research, Blom is surveying a randomly-selected group of 1,000 U.S. adults online. Participants “get exposed to one of two headlines about whether a majority or minority of citizens wants religious groups to be more involved in politics, attributed to either NBC or CBN (Christian Broadcast Network). The participants will indicate to what extent they believe the headline, as well as information about source trust,” Blom says. They will also indicate their own political leaning, religious beliefs, and how surprised they were that the source provided the headline.

Based on preliminary results from two of Blom’s previous studies, he expects that the participants’ source trust and expectations about source messages will explain the differences in believability. If this is true, it could suggest that sources people distrust at first can actually become very believable, and trusted sources can become very unbelievable. “Those findings could be the core of media literacy training modules to indicate the importance of accessing a variety of news sources to become educated about important issues in society for which there is no shared consensus on solutions,” Blom says.

Blom hopes to teach young adults to rely on multiple news sources so they can make informed choices, especially about life-and-death matters. “In a swiftly changing society, in which all members are bombarded with news and gossip through numerous channels each day, it may be more than ever that citizens require fundamental information-literacy skills to decipher fact from fiction,” he says.

“On some important political issues, such as … whether vaccinations cause autism, there is only one truth—vaccinations cause autism or they do not. And political decisions should reflect that reality,” he says.

“Any decision based on misperceptions, or long delays (in decisions) based on discussions fed by those misperceptions, takes away valuable time and resources on fixing problems that communities deal with. And sometimes those decisions could literally mean the difference between life, illness, and death—there can be severe consequences on refusing vaccinations—regardless of whether some related concerns are valid or not.”

Blom is especially intrigued in how people react to a news headline about a religious topic that is either attributed to secular or nonsecular sources. “I’m particularly interested in how the believability level of the headline is influenced by the level of news source trust and the prior expectancies of what news content individuals were expecting from a particular news source.”

So far, Blom has discovered a double-edged sword—people’s own bias can lead them to misperceive the news, yet the news can cause misperceptions, intentionally or not.

“On the one hand, cognitive biases lead certain individuals to adopt misperceptions—it’s not necessarily the actual news coverage,” he says. “On the other hand, news organizations must realize that the skepticism toward news coverage is largely caused by journalists distributing much misinformation—which is caused by a mix of honest mistakes, flawed journalistic practices, and intentional distortion by certain reporters and commentators. That distrust needs to be restored to decrease misperceptions within societies.”

Blom appreciates the support he’s received from Ball State and Sponsored Projects Administration (SPA). “The university has great programs to help junior faculty to develop their research ideas and grant-writing abilities. In particular, the folks at SPA have helped me to develop a research agenda for the next few years. The SPA workshops have helped me to craft competitive grant narratives, which have led to receiving a Hollis Award (for psychological research) and an Aspire junior faculty research award. That financial support allows me to collect valuable data to develop theories about why certain people believe things that aren’t true and other people don’t believe things that are true.”

The results of Blom’s research are taking him all over the world as he speaks to mass communication, political science, and social psychology audiences. He has presented in places such as the Midwest Political Science Association annual conference in Chicago, the Interamerican Congress of Psychology in Lima, Peru, and the Affect:  Memory, Aesthetics, and Ethics Conference in Winnipeg, Canada. In October, he traveled to Santiago, Chile, to present at the first international regional conference by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

Blom also shares his research in the classroom in hopes that his students will think critically about news sources and bias perceptions. “I think it’s important for student journalists to know that they will be challenged by some audiences even when they report neutrally and ethically. And, of course, they are news consumers as well. I hope to convince them that their own cognitive biases could influence how they perceive reality and how easily they could adopt misinformation.”

Autism and acoustics: sounds affect student behavior

Charley is a delightful 7-year-old boy. He giggles and plays, and he loves watching movies more than anything else. His favorite movie is Cars, like many other kids his age, but something is a little different about Charley—he can quote the entire movie from beginning to end, and he’ll repeat the same quote over and over all day long.

Charley has autism. He’s high-functioning, but it still affects his social interactions and performance in school.

Many kids like Charley have a hard time in school. Some of them communicate more slowly than their peers without autism, and they find it difficult to interact with others. Some students with autism have repetitive behaviors similar to Charley’s movie quotes.

One member of the interior design faculty at Ball State hopes her research could help students like Charley perform better in school—but how? What is the connection?

“Autism has long been excluded from the various architectural and interior design guidelines of practice for special needs,” according to Assistant Professor Shireen Kanakri.

She received a junior faculty award to support her research on how classroom acoustics may directly affect the behavior of students with autism.

“I found that there is a strong relation between sound and specific types of behaviors,” says Kanakri. So far, Kanakri had discovered that high-frequency sounds correlate positively with three behaviors: hitting, covering one’s eyes, and blinking. Frequency is essentially the pitch of a sound. A loud sound does not necessarily have a high frequency. For instance, the hum of a fluorescent light bulb has a high frequency but is most often quiet. Meanwhile, an ambulance siren or a person yelling are loud sounds that do not necessarily have high frequencies.

Kanakri is working on a follow-up study to confirm her findings. In this study, Kanakri will study children considered to be high-functioning autistic, both in her lab and in various classrooms. In the lab, children will be exposed to two different types of sounds—high-frequency sounds and loud sounds—and Kanakri will observe their behavior. These lab studies will allow Kanakri to study individual sounds without interruption from any other sound.

Kanakri is recruiting families from Indianapolis, Muncie, Fishers, and Caramel. So far, 80 families have agreed to participate. She hopes to eventually recruit families from further away and to pay for their travel and overnight costs.

In classrooms, Kanakri will observe the decibel levels of naturally-occurring sounds—such as from teachers, air conditioning units, other classrooms, and outside traffic—and the students’ behavior.

“For most students with autism, education is centered on learning skills for future independence. Acoustics is one of the most important factors when designing classrooms for children with autism,” she says. “If learning environments are not designed to accommodate students with developmental disabilities … they may not learn these important skills and may struggle to live in our society.”

Kanakri’s research can help children like Charley by helping families, teachers, physicians, and therapists understand the environment’s effects on students with autism. She also hopes her research will help the architectural and design worlds. “This research will give compelling reasons for architects and designers to modify the learning environment for children with autism. These modifications will help these children develop their skills, cope with the auditory problems and improve their behaviors.”

How can we improve the acoustic environment to support students with autism? “I recommend building acoustical panels in the classrooms to shut down all the sounds above 70 decibels (equivalent to a vacuum cleaner),” says Kanakri.

“Because children with autism are often hypersensitive, they are overstimulated by different things, so we need to be careful about what we put in the spaces around them. We should respect what they need.”

Kanakri plans to establish an autism healthy environment lab at Ball State. “This lab will be unique in this area,” she says. “It will be well-designed acoustically to observe children’s behaviors under specific levels of sound.”

She hopes to help students with autism to understand their environment better. “If autistic children are able to understand auditory information, they will be more likely to comprehend their environment, both socially and academically.”