Zhu researching walking patterns
of Austin ISD elementary students


Xuemei Zhu, assistant professor of architecture at Texas A&M’s College of Architecture and a Faculty Fellow at the college’s Center for Health Systems & Design, is heading a study to learn about how personal, social, physical and environmental factors affect children’s walking-to-school behaviors.

The study, “Safety, Health, and Equity for Active School Transportation: Interactions among Multi-Level Factors and Specific Needs of Low-Income Hispanic Children,” has received a two-year, $186,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“We’re trying to learn what kind of environment would encourage children to walk to school each day, instead of being driven, as a way to stay physically active and healthy,” said Zhu, who received a Ph.D. in architecture from Texas A&M and joined the Aggie faculty in 2008.

Zhu’s study involves students in 73 elementary schools in Austin whose families represent a wide range of socioeconomic status.

“We looked at schools with different poverty rates so we didn’t miss any specific income level,” said Zhu. “This also helps us to make comparisons between low-income neighborhoods and high-income neighborhoods, and to understand the specific needs of low-income children.”

In the project’s abstract, Zhu said a comprehensive, well-defined conceptual framework is needed to understand walking-to-school behaviors, and to guide relevant, tailored policy and environmental interventions in areas such as school location and development, school transportation, urban planning, and health promotion.

To determine this framework, Zhu and her research team, which includes Chanam Lee and James Varni, professors of landscape architecture and urban planning, and Oi-Man Kwok, professor of educational psychology, will develop the project based on data gathered during Zhu’s doctoral study. In that research, Zhu polled parents of students in 19 Austin ISD schools about their neighborhood environments and their children’s walking-to-school patterns, and collected data from 2,695 parents.

To collect additional data for the current project, home addresses from the survey will be geo-coded to analyze characteristics for individual students’ home to school routes using GIS. In addition, the team will conduct field audits for the walkability, safety, and ambient environment, which includes air quality and noise, for students’ walk to school.

“We’re trying to do it in a comprehensive way, to understand the barriers for this physically active transportation mode, as well as the health impact that such walking behavior would have on these children,” she said.

Zhu is also the co-principal investigator on another project, “The ‘Whys’ and ‘Why Nots’ of Active Living: Barriers and Motivators among High Risk Children,” funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, with Chanam Lee, assistant professor of landscape architecture and urban planning.

The mission of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is to contribute to the improvement of health and health care of Americans. For more information about the foundation, visit www.rwjf.org.

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