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YPIE Scientist: Amelia McKenna

Research: The Effect of Brief Animal-Assisted Therapy sessions on stress levels in high school students

Awards: WESEF 2023- Honorable Mention, Somers Science Fair 2022

Mentor: Sima Vazquez

Research Location: NYMC


High school students are constantly exposed to stress. The American Psychological Association reported in 2020 that 43% of teenagers experienced intense stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic (APA 2020). Stress is defined as the body's reaction to pressure and stress can manifest itself both physically and mentally (Cleveland Clinic 2022). Physically, stress can manifest itself as headaches, stomach pain, nausea, and shortness of breath (Harvard Health 2020). Despite the danger that stress can impose on one's health, there are ways to diminish its effect. One such method is animal-assisted therapy (AAT). Previous studies in university students have shown that AAT decreased stress in their participants through a decrease in blood pressure and a decrease in self-reported stress in the STAI, or the state-trait anxiety inventory. In “The Effect of Brief Animal-Assisted Therapy sessions on stress levels in high school students” it was hypothesized that systolic and diastolic blood pressure will decrease, pulse rate will decrease, and the STAI results will report lowered levels of anxiety because of the previous studies mentioned and their results that concluded that animal-assisted therapy decreased stress. The methodology used in this experiment was modeled after the feasibility of brief dog-assisted therapy on university students' stress levels: the PAWS study. 28 participants volunteered to partake in the experiment and were grouped into pairs. They were told that they would interact with the dog for seven minutes. The participants reported their stress with the STAI questionnaire on a survey, and their blood pressure was measured both before and after the participants interacted with the animal-assisted therapy team. The mean and standard deviation of demographic data, sums of pre- and post-STAI, differences of the mean systolic and diastolic, and differences in mean pulse rate were all collected, stored, and analyzed, on Google Sheets.

It was found that interacting with the therapy dog decreased stress. Overall, the dog decreased STAI, pulse rate, and diastolic blood pressure. In 9th graders systolic and diastolic blood pressure increased. The results were statistically significant for the STAI and heart rate. It is necessary that adolescents are aware of the resources surrounding them, such as animal-assisted therapy, so they can prevent mental and physical health issues and protect their well-being.

About this Scientist:

Amelia McKenna is a junior at Yonkers High School who plans to major in animal science in college. Outside of her science research class, she is on the Varsity Girls Swim Team and treasurer of YHS’s Crochet and Book Club. Amelia aspires to become a veterinarian due to her love of animals and medicine.

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