Iowa State University associate professor in the School of Education Larysa Nadolny, who recently received $600,000 in Presidential Interdisciplinary Research Initiative (PIRI) funding. Nadolny will lead a research team focused on exploring using gaming as a tool to improve STEM education practices and better prepare future STEM workforces. Photo courtesy of Ryan Riley
Iowa State University professor of apparel, events, and hospitality management Guowen Song, who recently received $600,000 in Presidential Interdisciplinary Research Initiative (PIRI) funding to lead a research team looking to improve the performance of personal protective equipment (PPE) used by medical professionals and first responders. Photo courtesy of Ryan Riley

OVPR Announces 2020 PIRI Grant Recipients

By Caitlin Ware, Iowa State University Office of the Vice President for Research

The Iowa State University Office of the Vice President for Research has announced two awardees for the 2020 Presidential Interdisciplinary Research Initiative (PIRI), distributing a total of $1.2 million in institutional funding to advance progress in the methodology behind STEM education and the development of personal protective equipment.

Established in 2012 and sponsored by the Office of the President, the PIRI provides large, interdisciplinary research groups funds ranging from $125,000 to $250,000 annually for up to three years to address emerging societal issues. For the 2020 award cycle, two teams led by associate professor in the School of Education Larysa Nadolny and professor of apparel, events, and hospitality management Guowen Song were each recently selected to receive $600,000 in PIRI funding over the next three years. Nadolny’s “Game2Work” research team will focus on using gaming to improve 21st century work and learning, while Song and his “NextGenPPE” team plan to investigate methods to better the performance of protective gear worn by first responders and medical professionals.

“The Office of the President established the PIRI awards as means to encourage interdisciplinary research and bring together different areas of expertise to coalesce around challenges that impact our society,” said Iowa State Interim Vice President for Research Guru Rao. “The efforts that are being spearheaded by these outstanding teams are incredible examples of the impact interdisciplinary research can have on exploring and advancing new innovations that deliver tangible benefits and results.”

“Serious Gaming” for Serious STEM Education

More than 200 million Americans are gamers. And “serious games” — games that emphasize learning goals —have been proven to improve competencies in math, science, and collaborative problem solving, all areas where the United States continues to rank behind other developed countries. The Game2Work team — composed of 15 collaborators in fields ranging from mechanical engineering to psychology at both Iowa State and outside institutions — will capitalize on the idea of using serious games to foster a learning environment capable of improving educational performance in STEM subjects, and ultimately better preparing the future STEM workforce.

Game2Work PIRI funding will be used to support the rapid prototyping of games built for learning. Together, the research team will work through the process of developing serious games, testing them in different environments, and applying results directly to learning communities. Research initiatives will also include outreach opportunities, ranging from campus-wide “game jams,” where student teams will compete to create games and win awards, to an annual conference designed to connect skilled students with industry partners. Outreach activities and events are anticipated to begin in early 2021.

Additionally, research will evaluate STEM education methods, human and technology teaming, and healthy gaming using testbed locations across campus.

“Gaming not only has tremendous potential to transform education, but it is closely associated with economic and societal impacts,” Nadolny said. “This research will cut across disciplines and has the potential to have Iowa State be known as the university centered on gaming to prepare students for the workforce of the future. I am honored to have been selected for this award that will pave the way for greater impact of gaming research at Iowa State and across the nation.”

Challenging the Challenges of Personal Protective Equipment

Personal protective equipment (PPE) systems, including gloves, boots, helmets, and respirators as subsystems, are the last line of defense between first responders, healthcare workers, researchers, and industrial workers and hazardous environments. But inadequate design is often behind gear failures. For healthcare workers, isolation gowns, which are typically made of non-breathable material to prevent transmission of pathogens, can cause heat stress and self-contamination. And for firefighters, the weight and bulkiness of PPE systems, such as gloves, compromises dexterity and protective performance, often resulting in serious injuries and long-term health and safety concerns.

The 29-person NextGenPPE research team – including internal and external experts in mechanical engineering, kinesiology, and occupational safety – will serve as a think tank to spur nationwide innovations in PPE engineering and design. The team’s research goals lie in advancing fundamental understanding within the PPE field, developing new standards, technology, materials, and products, and increasing educational opportunities for first responders, industrial workers, scientists, engineers, and the general public.

The NextGenPPE team will spend the first year of the project focused on team building, strategic planning, management, and industry engagement. In the second year, new facilities and devices will be developed, hand-in-hand with pilot studies pertaining to public safety and health-related PPE. Research efforts will continue in year three, with an emphasis on outreach and extension and large federal proposal development.

“The best PPE systems are the ones that adequately protect the wearer while not hindering human function,” Song said. “Current PPE systems fail to do that. To address these backfires, we need to enhance our understanding of materials, design, and engineering, as well as the functional needs of users and the physiological and psychological responses related to wearing this equipment. We are thrilled to receive the 2020 PIRI award. Not only is it an acknowledgement of our efforts, it is also a timely support to dive into the critical areas of healthcare PPE and public health.”

PIRI proposals may be submitted by teams composed of a lead faculty investigator and a core group of five or more Iowa State University faculty and staff members working together in an interdisciplinary area of recognized state and national importance to address grand challenges faced by society. The lead faculty investigator must be a full-time or associate university professor, and the team must include participants from multiple academic units and colleges on campus. More information about the PIRI can be found here.