Author Archives: Abbey Cofsky

How to Help Students by Helping Their Parents

Jul 27, 2016, 12:00 PM, Posted by Abbey Cofsky, Kristin Schubert

Communities share the specific steps they took to maximize academic success by supporting parents and families.

Teacher holds a student during class.

We’re all well aware that education leads to better jobs and higher income. Just as important, research also links education to reduced risk of illness, increased vitality, longevity and academic success that extends to future generations.

That’s why the situation for schools in Lawrence, Mass., was particularly concerning back in 2010. At the time, more than one out of every four Lawrence kids dropped out of high school. This led the Massachusetts Department of Education to put Lawrence’s schools into receivership by 2012, placing them under new management to safeguard state assets. The state-appointed “receiver,” was granted authority to develop an intervention plan to overhaul the schools through steps you might expect such as expanding the school day and replacing half the districts’ principals.

But the district also took one critical step by acknowledging that a family’s financial stability strongly influences how well children do in school—and whether they drop out.

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Debra Lieberman on Health Games Research's new Call for Proposals

Jan 15, 2009, 4:00 AM, Posted by Abbey Cofsky


Debra, can you tell us about the types of grants that will be available through this Call for Proposals?

The focus of the Call for Proposals (CFP), both during the first round of funding and now, is on research that will discover principles of health game design. This year the funding limit is higher: $300,000.  The money must be used primarily for research and only a small percentage of the grant – no more than 25 percent of the funding – is permitted to be used for developing game software or technology that will be used in the study   Also, like last year, the research must focus on a physical activity game that motivates people to get up and move, and/or on a self-care game that motivates people to engage in prevention, lifestyle improvement, self-management of chronic conditions or adherence to their treatment plan.  As we saw last year, these guidelines keep the program focused, yet they are not so restrictive that we don’t see a wide range of research issues addressed, game platforms used, game genres, research questions or study populations in the funded projects.

Are there specific things that you’re looking in this round of grantees?

We are looking for projects that focus on physical activity games and self-care games. The games may appear on any platform, with any genre, but they must be well designed and have theory or evidence demonstrating the game’s effectiveness.   

How can people learn more about this funding opportunity?

The complete Health Games Research Call for Proposals is available at  Additionally, there will be two optional web conference calls for potential applicants on February 11, 2009 (3 p.m. ET) and February 19, 2009 (4 p.m. ET).  Proposals are due by 3 p.m. ET on April 8, 2009. The conference calls are great opportunities for potential applicants to learn more about the program and to ask questions about the CFP requirements.

 Are there any tips you want to share with potential applicants?

The best tip I can give is to encourage applicants to read the Call for Proposals carefully and make sure that all the criteria and requirements have been met. Make sure your research team has the skills required to carry out the proposed project and that you are realistic about the budget and time line. Be sure to provide a good theory-based justification for your research plan, too. What are your hypotheses? Are they based on any theoretical knowledge and findings that already exist, and how are you taking your study to the next level? And be sure to include a dissemination plan for your work and explain how your findings will help us improve health games in the future

Thanks so much to Debra for taking the time to talk with us.  Health Games Research is taking on some really exciting work and we look forward to following the progress of the project's grantees. 

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.

More from our conversation with Debra Lieberman

Jan 14, 2009, 5:06 AM, Posted by Abbey Cofsky

Today, we continue our discussion with Debra Lieberman to learn more about the Health Games Research national program and the work of the program's twelve grantees.


Debra, can you give us an update on the first round of grants?

We selected 12 grantees in the first round of funding for Health Games Research last May. The 12 grantees, awarded up to $200,000 each, are leading one- to two-year studies of games that engage players – ranging in age from eight to 98 – in physical activity games or games that motivate them to improve their self-care.  For example, our grantees at the University of Southern California are testing the role of social support and coaching, delivered on line, in improving and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. They have developed a game that uses players’ friends and family as coaches.

A team at the University of South Carolina is looking at physical activity games, such as Dance Dance Revolution and Wii Fit, as therapy interventions for people who have had a stroke. Many patients receive physical therapy for a set period of time after a stroke, but there is a need for continuing physical therapy after the initial therapy sessions are done. Perhaps there is a game-based solution for ensuring ongoing therapy for stroke patients.

A team from the Maine Medical Center is investigating family interactions around the popular dance pad game Dance Dance Revolution with families that have at least one overweight child. The grantees are asking the questions, how do family interactions affect the child’s physical activity and what effects does the child have on the family’s activity? 

What has surprised you about the first round of grantees?

I’m not surprised, but I’ve been very pleased at the diversity of grantees’ areas of expertise and populations of focus. Many of our grantee research teams include medical experts, game designers and researchers so they are well equipped to develop powerful, effective health games.  The populations they are studying range from children to seniors, from people dealing with addictions and substance abuse to those dealing with chronic conditions. One of our grantees is studying seniors’ responses to stationery bikes that enable them to bike through virtual worlds. Another grantee is developing a game to motivate Cystic Fibrosis patients to engage in respiratory exercises and to inhale their medications.  So, I’m very pleased with the variety and scope of these projects and I should add that we are learning a lot from all twelve grantees.

How will Health Games Research impact health and health care in the short term, and in the long term?

At Health Games Research, we are working in the short term to help build the field by supporting high-quality research that will lead to the creation of impactful games. We want to build interest in the creation and use of health games, and we want people to see how much learning, understanding and behavior change can be stimulated by a fun, exciting, well-designed game.

In the long term, we will provide research findings and resources that will enable many more people and organizations to design and produce effective health games – especially on some of the newer game technologies.  For example, games can now receive input from sensors and monitors, such as GPS devices that identify players’ geographic location, accelerometers that record how much walking they have done that day and heart rate monitors that report aerobic activity.  What fun to integrate these kinds of data into the state of a game, with an eye toward health promotion and behavior change! 

I also expect to see our research influence the design of mobile health games and games delivered on electronic toys or robots. Almost any interactive technology could provide a health game if designed with a little creative ingenuity and a solid foundation of theory, evidence, and understanding of the way people respond to games cognitively, emotionally, socially and physically. I believe that our research will lead to better game design and by engaging the health care community, policy-makers and game designers in this effort, our program will potentially lead increase the uses and effects of games for health behavior change.

Tomorrow, we will post the last part of our interview with Debra in addition to the new Call for Proposals being released by the Health Games Research program.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.

Wrapping up with Candice Kane

Dec 17, 2008, 9:58 AM, Posted by Abbey Cofsky

On 9/13/2012 CeaseFire changed its name to Cure Violence

Today, we wrap up our conversation with Candice Kane of CeaseFire with a look at how workers are responding to trainings in Second Life and some thoughts on the potential for virtual worlds to help advance the violence prevention field in addition to other community health interventions.

How has your staff responded to these new trainings in Second Life?

The workers have responded very well. The beginning was a bit bumpy. We brought in a small group of workers that really didn’t know anything about computers and had no concept of virtual worlds. So the initial response was a little bit skeptical, I think they were concerned that they wouldn’t be able to do it, and we had a couple folks who struggled early on. By the end of the first training, they all said, “This is really cool. I really want to learn this. I want to do this.” And for those that had any computer sophistication at all, they were off and running in an hour’s time. They were doing all kinds of things with their avatars -- changing body shapes, outfitting their virtual selves. Some even went a bit overboard with their virtual bling. We had to remind them that you can’t be out on the streets, real or virtual, with all that flashy jewelry. So for them it’s fun. It’s entertaining. And it is giving them the opportunity to develop not only the violence prevention and mitigation skills they need for the job, but also computer skills and problem solving skills.  It has also empowered the staff to take ownership of the training. In fact, one of our violence interrupters has volunteered to take the lead on training other workers. So, we are excited to see the peer-to-peer training that virtual world enables.

file An image of a violence interrupter practicing in Second Life

Where do you hope to go with Second Life? 

Right now we are just using Second Life for training with our Chicago team, but we are looking to get Baltimore and other cities up and running soon.But more than that, we see enormous possibility for how we can use Second Life to empower individuals and to prevent violence.

Elena Quintana, who heads our evaluation unit, has her doctorate is in psychology. As a clinical psychologist she talks a lot about social distance, and the social distance that both our workers and our clients have to cover to become part of mainstream society, even to reach just the fringe of mainstream society. I think Second Life really offers us some potential there, because there are a lot of things that our workers and clients don’t have experience doing – things that are unfamiliar to them. And when you’re 25, 30, 35, you’ve been in prison for 15 years, you’re just coming back, and you don’t know how to get your own apartment, you don’t know even how to take public transportation, you don’t know how to do things that an 8 or a 10-year-old kid can do, there’s a reluctance to admit it. We’ve talked about doing things in Second Life that are self guided, so that someone can go in and practice certain skills without needing a supervisor or co-worker to be present. And if we can get to that point, then that really opens some doors for people, where they don’t have to admit that they don’t know how to do things. I’m also exploring to see if there are ways we can do more literacy training and job training – like having our workers practice doing job applications on line. We really see Second Life as a portal to so many skill development opportunities.

Is there anyone else in your field that is already or considering using Second Life?

I’m not aware of anybody. We did a presentation at the Second Life conference last summer, when we were just getting into this. We had some still images and a two-minute video to share.  There were a lot of folks that came up to us and said, “Wow, this is really cool. Keep us posted.” But there were not too many social service types. As I’ve been out and about, I’ve been talking about it with other groups, and there is a lot of interest out there. We have seen interest from some organizations that are exploring how to use virtual worlds to provide counseling to people who are sexually assaulted. I think that there are some real opportunities for victim services and other areas. It’s just a question of helping them understand the technology and then overcoming some financial hurdles, which are really not as substantial as they would’ve been some years ago.

Thanks so much to Candice for taking the time to talk with us.  It is clear that CeaseFire is out in front of leveraging the use of virtual worlds to drive social change and we are so excited about the work they are doing and the results they are achieving.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.

More on Second Life from Candice Kane of CeaseFire

Dec 16, 2008, 2:52 AM, Posted by Abbey Cofsky

On 9/13/2012 changed its name to Cure Violence

Today we continue our discussion with Candice Kane of CeaseFire to learn more about how their organization is using Second Life to train outreach workers and violence interrupters as part of a national effort to prevent violence.

How did you make the connection between your training efforts and Second Life?

A couple years ago, we were tossing around the idea of doing some type of CeaseFire game.  A couple of us had the opportunity to participate in a regional Games for Health meet-up in California where we learned a little bit more about how games were being used to promote health.  We talked with Ben Sawyer about our interest in using games to prevent violence; he was excited that we were thinking about games, but encouraged us to think more about what were going to do with the game, what we wanted to accomplish and what would be the potential challenges. We brought these ideas and questions back to our colleagues at the Center for the Advancement of Distance Education (CADE) here at the University of Chicago and someone said, “Have you thought about Second Life?” Given our interest in using games or interactive technology for training, a number of folks felt it would be a good fit.  

The first time I got a look at Second Life, I thought, wow, this is a great opportunity for us to create a forum where people can practice violence interruption. Conducting CeaseFire training sessions around the country is really cost prohibitive for us, but we saw quickly that Second Life would enable us to reach a broader audience and train workers in a safe and engaging environment.

What went into the development of your space in Second Life?

At this point, we have two islands in Second Life. CeaseFire Island was our first project. The initial challenge was to develop an environment that replicated the look and feel of the Chicago neighborhoods where CeaseFire was focused. Working with the developers at CADE, we went into our neighborhoods and took pictures of the houses, buildings and streetscapes.  The developers we worked with were terrific, but I remember seeing the first designs and saying, “This is too clean. This is too neat. We’ve got to mess this up. We need litter. I want graffiti. I want to board up some of the buildings.” The creative team looked at me like, “You want to mess up my building?” “Yes!” It was very important to me that the Island look like the neighborhoods where we spend our time, and our neighborhoods are messy.  So we spent a lot of time to get the look right, and now we even have a backdrop of the Chicago skyline. Our second island, CeaseFire Isla is adjacent to CeaseFire Island and is largely Latino in look and feel.


The pictures below show how the CADE developers and CeaseFire team used neighborhood photos to develop sketches that eventually led to a realistic virtual world.

Check back tomorrow for the last part of our conversation with Candice. And to learn more, be sure to visit the CeaseFire website at

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.

Conversations with Today's Pioneers in Health and Health Care

May 6, 2008, 10:42 AM, Posted by Abbey Cofsky

The programs and projects that Pioneer grantees are leading give all of us here at the Foundation a lot to think about. Their work presents us with new perspectives and new questions, and fosters many great discussions about the role of innovation in health and health care. Some of those discussions have been shared here on the Pioneering Ideas blog and we appreciate the opportunity to have such conversations with you about the work of our grantees, promising ideas for the future, and the importance of innovation in health.

While we all enjoy talking and writing about the work of our grantees, there is something special about hearing from them directly about what’s on their minds. To that end, we are beginning a new series of interviews with Pioneer grantees - putting them on the spot, asking important questions about their work and sharing those insights here on the blog.

We hope that you too will feel free to ask questions of these health and health care pioneers.

Our first grantee feature will be posted tomorrow; an interview with Lynn Etheredge, a health care consultant who is working with a team of researchers at the George Washington University on how to move the nation toward a rapid learning health care system, one that uses health data in more powerful ways to answer key questions and deliver evidence-based medicine to patients. Comparative effectiveness analysis is helping researchers assess which treatments and technologies work best and most cost-effectively for which populations, and it’s getting a lot of attention in health policy spheres. Check back tomorrow to see what Lynn has to say about rapid learning and comparative effectiveness research, and how these trends might spark dramatic improvements in the future of health and health care.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.