I arrived in Dillwyn, VA in early September 2013. I had been to this community several times before. Researching the impact of healthy design features incorporated into the Buckingham County Primary and Elementary Schools renovation became an integral part of my doctoral studies three years ago. However, my previous visits were quick, a week at a time at most in order to collect baseline measures before the renovation was complete.

In the fall of 2013, I lived in Dillwyn for two months, visiting and working at the school every day, while collecting one year post-occupancy research data. This experience heightened my belief in the potential of architecture and deepened my understanding of the multifaceted and complex interactions of our social, cultural, and physical environments.

Our research methods – a mix of quantitative and qualitative measures – were designed with the intent to capture the complexity I observed. For example, we collected surveys (developed and tested to ensure accurate and quantifiable measures of healthy eating and physical activity attitudes, norms, and behaviors) from students and school staff. Also approximately 30 students wore accelerometers (monitors that track movement and activity levels) in their old school and again this fall. Our qualitative methods include in-depth interviews with over 20 school administrators and teachers, but perhaps my favorite qualitative components were with students. We conducted focus groups and asked small groups of students to create drawings and maps in order to share with us their thoughts and feelings about important aspects of their school.

I left Dillwyn at the end of October 2013. Since I left, I miss talking to the staff and students, learning about their day-to-day challenges and triumphs. Seeing this bigger picture made me realize how the quantitative and qualitative data are equally important, neither alone will provide a true picture. Using the quantitative data, we can determine if there are significant changes in eating and physical activity behaviors from baseline to post-occupancy, or differences between the renovated school and a comparison school.

The qualitative measures will provide a rich description of how the building and renovation has been perceived and experienced by the staff and students over time. It is when we consider these data pieces together, though, that we can hope to formulate a complete picture of how and why changes took place. In the coming year, as we process and analyze the data, I am excited about the story that will unfold about this innovative school building and the community that took on such an intense endeavor to improve its health and wellness.

by Leah Frerichs, Graduate Assistant & Doctoral Candidate,
University of Nebraska Medical Center, College of Public Health