Comparing the effectiveness of a SNAP simulation given to dietetics students in the classroom versus on the computer

Baughman, Amber
Major Professor
Lorraine Lanningham-Foster
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Food Science and Human Nutrition

COVID-19 has changed much in our society, including a movement from in-person to virtual learning to keep students safe. Not only have lectures been moved online, but instructors are searching for new ways to provide traditional in-class activities. Virtual reality and computer-based simulations are two potential technologies providing virtual activities to enhance student learning and build empathy. This research study compared the effectiveness of a computer-based simulation versus a traditional in-class simulation in a community nutrition course with senior and graduate-level dietetics students. The simulation mimicked challenges Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients face when grocery shopping, including budget, time, and item constraints. The simulation was part of a larger SNAP assignment that all students were required to complete. Seventy-four students were randomly assigned to complete either the classroom SNAP simulation or computer SNAP simulation and 69 students provided consent to participate in the research study. Students completed a pre- and post-survey measuring empathy and social justice attitudes before and after the simulation, and a simulation survey pertaining to presence after their respective simulation. Students also had the opportunity to sign a letter sent to Congress promoting SNAP funding. Results showed there was no difference in grades, social justice attitudes, or empathy between students who completed either simulation. However, there was a statistically significant difference from the pre- to post-survey response measuring the ability to empathize with others (p=0.049) among all students, with a pre-survey score of 4.42 and post-survey score of 4.58. There was also a significant difference in presence (p=0.049), with students in the classroom simulation reporting an average score of 3.48 ± 1.28 and students in the computer simulation reporting an average score of 4.09 ± 1.15. Specifically, students in the computer simulation reported higher feelings of presence in three areas including: 1. sense of being in the supermarket (p=0.03); 2. resemblance of the virtual supermarket to a real supermarket (p=0.0062); and 3. rating for background sounds (p=0.016). In terms of the letter to Congress, 18 students signed the memo, but there was no association between simulation and students who signed. These findings are promising and suggest that a computer simulation may be an effective alternative to a classroom simulation in the dietetics curriculum.