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Young Duluth, Minn., researcher demonstrates importance of hand washing


DULUTH, Minn. -- We've all been told it's a good idea to wash our hands.

Researcher Tim Renier -- a sophomore at Duluth East High School -- has demonstrated just how good an idea it is. He found a statistically significant link between effective hand washing and school absenteeism. Specifically, he demonstrated that a technique called motivational interviewing is effective in getting students to do a better job of washing their hands, thus staying healthier.

Next week, he'll present his findings at the annual Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, an event called the Olympics of science.

"I'm extremely excited to get to present on that level," he said. "It was a lot of work, but it's definitely worth it."

About 1,500 high school students from more than 50 countries will showcase their independent research at the fair, running through May 17 in Phoenix. The event is the culmination of a system of local, regional, state and national fairs involving millions of students.

Renier, 15, has competed at the regional and state level for four years. He attended last year's international fair as an alternate and an observer.

"It's always fun to both present research to the scientific community and to see that other students are working on," he said.

Holy Rosary School science teacher Robin Churchill has coached Renier since seventh grade.

"As a researcher he's amazing. He has just taken off," she said. "He's put a lot more work into this than most students. His knowledge of research is at a very high level."

When Renier was first looking for a research topic, the world was wrestling with an H1N1 influenza pandemic. He decided to study the links between hand washing and staying healthy. Two considerations motivated him.

"I wanted to do something that would improve the health of the students in my school," said Renier, who was attending Holy Rosary at the time.

"Secondly, I didn't want to get sick myself," he said.

Motivational interviewing

Renier's research has consumed thousands of hours while evolving over time. His current project is titled "The Effects of a Multi-Factor Hand Hygiene Intervention with Motivational Interviewing on Hand Washing Effectiveness, Behavior, Attitudes, and Absences of High School Students."

Renier worked directly with 165 students.

"It was a 14-week intervention process that included some group interventions and visual demonstrations," he said. "But the key aspect was it had several motivational interviewing sessions."

Motivational interviewing is a nonjudgmental, nonconfrontational and goal-directed technique designed to help people enhance healthy behavior. Building on what subjects know, the interviewer and interviewee create a plan to reduce risks and improve health.

"I would actually interview the students individually following the principles of motivational interviewing," Renier said.

To help demonstrate the effectiveness of their hand washing, Renier had his subjects put a special lotion on their hands first and then wash. The lotion that remains after washing glows under ultraviolet light -- demonstrating the effectiveness of a person's hand washing.

In addition to interviews, Renier's subjects completed several surveys to assess their behavior and attitudes about hand washing.

The absence rates of Renier's subjects were compared to a control population of 71 other students. The comparison demonstrated that motivational interviewing was effective in getting students to wash their hands better, thus reducing illness and absence.

Career track

Renier has always been interested in science, and his four years of research has reinforced that.

"I know I want to do something in science eventually," he said. "I'm very interested in research, public health and statistics."

A trip to the international fair is not the only recognition Renier's project has received. Just this week he learned the Minnesota Department of Education awarded him a Scholar of Distinction Award in Science, one of only a handful awarded to students across the state.

"I can totally see him doing this as a profession," Churchill said.