As evidence builds of the importance of sleep for learning and the ways in which school policies can interfere with students’ zzz’s, here’s one more team of researchers worth watching: New Jersey middle schoolers Beata Wolak and Ruth Daly.
Last year, the girls tracked their 7th grade classmates’ sleep habits after Howell Middle School South in Howell, N.J. moved to a 1-to-1 laptop initiative and they started noticing students coming to school sleepy. After asking 25 students to record their sleep habits and morning alertness over several days, the student-researchers randomly chose half to avoid electronics after 8 p.m.—"when the body starts producing melatonin,” they said—for a week.
“All of our classmates, we communicate with each other and we all have after-school activities. A lot of the kids in our class don’t start homework until 8 or 9 at night, and we have one or two hours of homework,” said Daly, now an 8th grader. Because of the technology initiative, the students staying up late for homework generally did it on their computers, whose screens are often rich in “blue-light” that mimics morning daylight and can delay the release of the sleep hormone melatonin.
Wolak and Daly found students who avoided electronics reported more alertness in the second week. The results in their small way back up a growing body of research on potential sleep disruptions caused by nighttime technology use; In the process, they learned how to set up the experiment, develop valid surveys and baselines, and use statistical software.
The students presented the study both to classes and the school administration, and Daly said the school has made a few changes in response. “They are giving less homework and trying to give more time to do homework in school to avoid this situation,” she said. “We don’t have a study hall, but the teachers are giving 15 minutes at the end of each period to do our homework or complete classwork.”
As for the researchers themselves, Daly said she now avoids television after school and Wolak said she is trying to complete more homework on the bus so she can turn off her computer after dark. “I usually wake up at 6, and I find it’s easier for me to wake up in the morning” if she avoids screen time the night before, Wolak said.
The study isn’t likely to get accepted for journal publication anytime soon, but it highlights the potential for even students in younger grades to learn how to use research to answer questions and find solutions to education problems around them. The project was part of the National Science Teachers Association’s 2017 Bright Schools Competition, for which the students took second place under their coach, Howell science teacher Josh Langenberger.
You can see the students’ full project here:
A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.