Conducting arts research and helping the community at the same time

Participants in one of the ukulele workshops offered at the Hylton Performing Arts Center. Photo provided.

Jatin Ambegaonkar believes that George Mason University is a university for the world, and that includes, directly and indirectly, affecting its surrounding community. With his latest research project, he did just that.

An multidisciplinary team including Ambegaonkar, a professor in the College of Education and Human Development; Holly Matto, a professor in the College of Health and Human Services; and Niyati Dhokai, a professor at the College of Visual and Performing Arts and program director for the Veterans and the Arts Initiative, were awarded $94,000 by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to support a study examining the effects of arts engagement programs on the health outcomes of older adults.

Their research specifically focuses on the effects of community-engaged art programs and how they affect people’s quality of life and physical performance. The team just wrapped up the data collection part of their project and are now interpreting the data.

Jatin Ambegaonkar

Healthy adults above the age of 65 were invited to participate in a 10-week free ballroom dance class or a ukulele-playing class, the team’s art research groups, or social talk sessions, which was their control group. 

"One of the most fun parts is to do good for the community," said Ambegaonkar. "Oftentimes when we do research it becomes about the research process. And that was not the original thought process behind this project. The original thought process was ‘How can we help the community?’" 

He said that they received great feedback from their participants, some of whom even continued with their meetings after the 10 weeks were over. 

“One of our groups has gone rogue, and they've actually started to take part in ukulele lessons outside the grant,” said Ambegaonkar. “They formed a group of their own, and they're starting to rent space in the Hylton Performing Arts Center.” 

The research team plans to share their research with the community—hoping to inspire more engagement groups and art programs. 

“Our participants knew that they were part of a research study, and they often mentioned that they were interested in learning our research findings to understand the effects of arts engagement,” said Dhokai. “So, our public presentation is a great way to share our findings with our community of research participants, as well as for community members—including artists, educators, health care providers and public officials.”

While the effects of the arts on individuals have been studied time and time again, Ambegaonkar is taking a different approach, one that will help researchers make harder claims on the effects of arts on older people. 

“Research suggests that engaging the arts is helpful and positive. People take part in the arts because they want to socialize, they want to learn new things and they want to have support,” said Ambegaonkar, adding that multiple research projects have shown the positive effects of the arts.

According to Ambegaonkar, their research project applies one of the most rigorous forms of research, a randomized controlled trial, and approaches the study in a holistic and multidimensional way that will help researchers connect art activities to psychical health and psychological measures such as cognition and attention.  

They will share their results first with researchers and then with the community at the Hylton Performing Arts Center on Mason’s Science and Technology Campus in Manassas. The event is open to the public on March 5 from 5-7 p.m. The researchers will give a short presentation on their findings and select study participants will give performances.