Penn State students participate in CDC-led research project on mask-wearing

Kayla Prag
March 31, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Twenty-six Penn State students are serving as data collectors and data managers in a nationwide research study to understand mask usage on college campuses.

MASCUP! — the Mask Adherence and Surveillance at Colleges and Universities Project — is a collaboration between state health departments, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID-19 Response Team, and 56 institutions of higher education, including Penn State. A real-world learning opportunity for participating students, the study is collecting data to help universities, policymakers and the general public understand how compliant college communities are with masking guidelines.

Study parameters

Student data collectors observe high foot-traffic locations on and around the University Park campus and record the mask-wearing behaviors that they witness. The students measure the presence of a mask; mask placement on the face; whether it is covering the mouth, nose and chin; and the type of mask. During observations, no identifying information is collected.

In addition, as a condition of participation, student data collectors’ and managers’ identities will not be disclosed until the research is complete.

Penn State students began collecting data on Feb. 22 of this year. Data from the second week of collection revealed that 98% of Penn Staters wore masks, which is up 1% from the first week. Of these mask wearers, 60% wore cloth masks, and 90% wore their masks correctly.

Woman seen from chin down is seated at wooden table. She has one hand on a laptop. Her other hand holds a pen which is poised above a clipboard with paper in it.
IMAGE: Getty Images / DjMiko

A learning experience

The students said that they are participating in MASCUP! because it will help them achieve their future goals.

“I wanted to get involved in real research and understand how our community complies with public-health guidelines,” said a junior biobehavioral health major and biology minor, who is acting as a data collector.

A senior biobehavioral health major said, “MASCUP! will help me complete an accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing program by demonstrating my drive to improve health interventions and messaging.”

Similarly, a junior majoring in chemistry with a minor in global health said they felt that participating in MASCUP! was advantageous. “It is a wonderful experience that will undoubtedly prepare me for my future in public health,” said the student.

Positive results

In the fall semester, Penn State appointed public health ambassadors who were trained to encourage other students to follow proper COVID-19 safety protocols and who distributed Penn State masks among the student population. At least one student data collector attributed some of the positive results to the public health ambassadors program. 

“I have frequently observed students wearing the cloth Penn State masks that were distributed during the fall semester,” said a senior majoring in biobehavioral health with a minor in human development and family studies. “Increasing resources has had a visible impact on masking in the Penn State community.”

Student data collectors said they have been pleased to observe most people on campus masking properly. 

“After hearing about poor mask usage among college students in the news, I find it inspiring that a significant proportion of students on campus adhere to the guidelines that are in place to protect them and their fellow community members’ health,” said one of the data collectors. 

“I usually only see one or two students wearing their mask incorrectly," said another student volunteer, a junior majoring in biobehavioral health with a minor in global health, adding that they were encouraged to see most people on campus following critical health guidance.

An opportunity to contribute

The participating students were recruited by Dana Naughton, assistant teaching professor of biobehavioral health and director of the Global Health Minor program, and Elizabeth Lasher, associate teaching professor of biobehavioral health and internship coordinator, who serve as co-principal investigators on the project at Penn State.

“The opportunity for students to work for entities whose research and interventions they read so much about — the CDC, a state department of health — is incredibly inspiring and rewarding,” Naughton said.

“Equally important is that the students are making a legitimate scientific contribution,” Naughton continued. “Understanding masking adherence will help scientists and our own community understand the spread — and prevention of spread — of this pandemic. And that could help society and all of us be better prepared for disease outbreaks in the future.”  

Lasher felt the MASCUP! project was beneficial for everyone involved.

“It has been a difficult year for all of us, and being able to do something productive to address the pandemic has lifted our spirits,” said Lasher. “The MASCUP! study has helped us believe in the power of helping each other and inspiring change.”


Last Updated March 31, 2021