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“SOPARC and FED-UP”

Michelle Fang, 2009, Urban Studies/PURM

Through the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program this summer, I have had the opportunity to work with Professor Amy Hillier on several urban health research projects in Philadelphia. As part of a project called SOPARC (System for Observing Play and Recreation in Communities), I have been assessing physical activity in Philadelphia parks and learning about how well these parks serve their communities. My research included mapping the parks, observing and measuring physical activity levels, and surveying park users and residents in the surrounding neighborhoods. This project has given me hands-on experience with conducting social research in a field environment. For example, measuring activity in parks is challenging because the number of park users and their activity levels are highly variable and park characteristics often change. I learned to follow a protocol to collect accurate data and to resolve unexpected issues that arise in the field. I also learned to use Adobe Photoshop and other software to map and divide the parks into target areas that assist us in data collection. For the survey aspect of the project, we asked park users and residents in the surrounding communities about their park usage, their general level of fitness, and their opinion about how the park can be improved. I have gained valuable interview experience and learned to speak with survey participants in a respectful and professional manner.

In addition, I have collected pilot data for FED-UP (Food and Exercise Diaries in Urban Places), a project that aims to find an accurate measure to record food intake and exercise for children walking to and from school. We started a database of the snacks available in Philadelphia corner stores, where kids often purchase junk food walking to and from school. We have also created a survey and interviewed corner store owners in West Philadelphia and North Philadelphia as well as a wholesale distributor to find out about how food decisions are made. From this preliminary research, we gathered that most corner stores offer a wide variety of inexpensive junk foods such as candy, chips and pastries. However, most do not offer healthier options such as fresh fruit and lack refrigeration equipment to properly store fresh produce. The average child in Philadelphia spends $2 on their way to and from school, a fact that may be contributing to rising obesity among children. Understanding where children buy what kinds of foods would help create possible interventions for childhood obesity. Finally, through this internship, I have worked with an extraordinary team of undergraduate, graduate, and high school students, as well as community members in West Philadelphia. Visiting parks and corner stores has allowed me to gain exposure to different parts of this city and meet people from various walks of life. Learning about the urban environment in Philadelphia has also inspired in me a great interest in environmental health. People’s physical activity can be dictated by the condition of nearby parks and children’s choice of foods can be largely shaped by the food availability in their neighborhoods. PURM is an exceptional opportunity that has allowed me to work with Dr. Amy Hillier and shaped the kind of research I hope to pursue.

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