WSU receives grant to promote rural vaccination education

An aerial view of the Yakima River and surrounding countryside near Ellensburg, Washington.
An aerial panorama of the Yakima River near Ellensburg, Washington.

A Washington State University research team has received $300,000 to continue a project to improve vaccine science education, especially within rural communities. The project includes an online toolkit developed by WSU that is currently in use by Extension officials across the nation. 

This is the second grant for the project, making a total of $600,000 in support received from the Extension Collaboration on Immunization Teaching and Engagement (EXCITE), a nationwide local response by U.S. Cooperative Extension to address health disparities among rural and other underserved communities.

During the first phase of the project, WSU researchers from Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, College of Education, and Extension developed a toolkit and content that empowers Extension professionals nationwide to effectively connect with their local residents. With the additional 18 months of EXCITE funding for the second phase, the team will test the toolkit’s effectiveness and refine the messaging.

Closeup of Paul Bolls.
Paul Bolls

“This collaborative endeavor underscores WSU’s commitment to disseminating accurate and accessible vaccine science education in rural areas,” said Paul Bolls, director of Research Laboratories from Murrow College. “By leveraging innovative techniques and a multi-pronged approach, this project is set to make a lasting impact on how Extension professionals engage with their communities.”

The “Washington State University Toolkit” content is now accessible on the Extension Foundation website. The team created the online toolkit with accompanying YouTube workshops to enhance Extension officials’ skills and confidence in communicating vaccination information in their communities. 

Closeup of Erica Austin.
Erica Austin

“YouTube statistics suggest that the Extension teams on the project are giving the toolkit an energetic road test,” said Erica Austin, director of the WSU Murrow Center for Media and Health Promotion. “We’re already getting a lot of positive feedback, but we will be doing an evaluation to see exactly how it is helping them and what adjustments can make it even more effective.”

To evaluate the toolkit, the research team will use Applied Neuromarketing Content Testing through the Mobile Murrow Media Mind Lab, which involves using physiological data (e.g., heart rate and facial expressions) in combination with attitudes and behaviors. This approach will provide an assessment of the vaccine science messaging with the goal of making the content as effective as possible. 

It’s a research-based, theory-informed, multidisciplinary method that combines the influence of emotions and reason to help change people’s behavior, said Bolls.

The WSU team will work with six land grant universities to utilize insights from the Applied Neuromarketing Content Testing to improve communication effectiveness. The researchers will also conduct a national survey of Extension professionals’ local partners to better understand how they have used the toolkit to develop their campaign materials and how well it has boosted their skills and confidence for vaccine education.

The continuing phase of the project draws from a diverse pool of expertise, including the co-leadership of Bolls and Erica Austin from Murrow College. The team also includes education faculty Bruce Austin and Anya Sheftel, Murrow post-doc Shawn Domgaard as well as Ph.D. student Di Mu.

As of July 2023, EXCITE teams across the nation had held 1,148 vaccination clinics and had administered 26,023 immunizations, reaching more than 18 million people with messaging. Yet the WSU researchers’ needs assessment with Extension professionals nationwide discovered that many were hesitant to perform vaccination and health communication outreach. Primary concerns were the need to preserve community trust and professional credibility, the challenge of establishing connections with medical experts, and strengthening science media literacy skills to counter misinformation and communicate emerging science in a politically charged climate.

The WSU toolkit is designed to help them sharpen these skills along with providing “brain-friendly” message production tips based on neuro-message testing of text and images among the professionals. These messages are purposefully designed according to how the human brain actually processes information, said Bolls, and research has shown this is more effective than traditional science communication methods.  

Further information about the EXCITE project can be found on the Extension Foundation website.

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