Driven to Educate, Research, Engage

Driven to Discover Research Building at MN State Fair

Driven to Educate, Research, Engage

The new Driven to Discover building brings University of Minnesota research to the State Fair and opportunities for Fairgoers to participate.


The bright light filtering in through the windows of the new Driven to Discover research facility at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds brings with it a sense of energy for researchers bustling to set up their projects. The windows are a new feature in the building, debuted at the 2017 State Fair, and bring a welcome openness to the building.

“Anyone at the Fair is welcome in our building, we’re open for everyone,” said Ellen Demerath, Ph.D., professor in the division of Epidemiology and Community Health in the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health.

The Driven to Discover research facility, called D2D by investigators, showcases studies from across the University of Minnesota and encourages participants to take a break between pronto pups to sneak in a little science.

“It’s a really fun experience, to just all be at the Fair together and finding solutions for our statewide communities while also learning a little about each other,” Demerath said

Driven to Discover grew out of a successful project at the State Fair, in which Demerath partnered with Logan Spector, Ph.D., director of the Division of Epidemiology and Clinical Research in the University of Minnesota Department of Pediatrics and member of the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota. The pair teamed up to study “Gopher Kids” - tracking Minnesota youth over the course of several years with check ups at the Great Minnesota Get Together. The project was part health research, part pilot to determine if the State Fair could serve as ground zero for breaking down barriers between researchers and Minnesotans.

“Gopher Kids was an incredible way to get involved with the greater Minnesota community in a way we hadn’t before,” said Spector. “This type of project and engagement was something more people needed access to, both researchers and Minnesotans. It really grew into the idea for a freestanding research building.”

Logan Spector, Ph.D., and Ellen Demerath, Ph.D.Photo: Logan Spector and Ellen Demerath created the Driven to Discover building to bring research opportunities to fairgoers. 

Cooking up a little “research on a stick”

The idea for an on-site research center at the Minnesota State Fair seemed so obvious once proposed: a cross-section of Minnesotans, diverse in all ways, ready for activities and swelling with pride in their state and its contributions to the world. Minnesotans are known for their commitment to civics, so Spector and Demerath hoped they would embrace the mission of citizen-based science and fill the building with study participants. Still, it took several years for the plans for Driven to Discover to work into a fully fledged project.

“The Driven to Discover building is an innovative, totally cool resource for enhancing the relationship between the University’s research and outreach mission with the citizens of Minnesota,” said Tucker LeBien, Ph.D., associate vice president of research in the Academic Health Center.

Engagement is a key piece of the Driven to Discover mission; the building houses many research projects over the course of the Fair - 102 to date - but increasingly the space is a home for interested people to learn more about research and what it means to participate.

We’re pulling back the curtain, getting rid of white coats and creating accessibility to research for everyone. - Ellen Demerath, Ph.D.

“This is a space for discovery but it’s also a place for educating,” said Demerath. “We’re pulling back the curtain, getting rid of white coats and creating accessibility to research for everyone. This is a place not just to recruit or research, but to educate our neighbors and fellow Minnesotans on their rights and responsibilities when it comes to research.” 

Driven to Discover first opened its doors in 2014, making its debut in the former SPAM building. In its first year, it hosted 29 studies. Researchers were pretty pleased with the response and the quick pace many hit their recruiting goals. An estimated 8,000 participants logged time filling surveys, performing exercise tasks and completing taste tests. 

37,400 fairgoers enrolled in Driven to Discover research

“Our location is a unique and recognizable one, and it was really good luck we landed across from the Education building. There are a lot of families coming by, and a lot of people enthusiastic about our mission for education and discovery,” said Spector.

The Minnesota State Fair helps place all new Fair vendors and exhibitors, and connected the Driven to Discover crew with the famed blue SPAM building. They promptly painted it maroon and gold, made a few updates to the interior and the project took off.

It quickly became clear the interest in the building was expanding while the space remained small, dim and poorly accessible for anyone with a disability. There wasn’t enough storage space or a place to keep equipment, something becoming a bigger issue each year as researchers sought to tap into the rich potential participant pool at the State Fair.

“We were maxed out in our space,” said Demerath. “Teams were out front and behind the building as we tried to make as many stalls available as possible, and we were taking giant trips every day to transport the items needed for projects to get underway. We needed to expand, and also to address some structural issues in the space.”

SEE MORE: Driven to Discover kicks off at the Fair (2014)

Demerath and Spector imagined something brighter, bigger, with more facilities for researchers to adapt their spaces to their needs and additional room to expand participant education outreach. They engaged with the College of Design, having students think through the challenge of their space in a course.

“They had incredible ideas, based on our mission of education and research,” said Spector. “Out of this came the idea of a prow of a ship forging the way to discovery, something we really love in the shape of our new building." 

The funding for the new building came from a mixed bag of sources across the University, similar to the researchers who fill it during the 12-day operational schedule. Funding came in from the College of Biological Sciences, College of Liberal Arts, College of Science & Engineering and Academic Health Center, along with a generous commitment from the Office of the Vice President for Research. 

"[It] provides citizens with the opportunity to learn and sometimes participate in interesting research."

Finishing just before the gates were set to open for the 2017 Minnesota State Fair, Duffy Architects finished off the building and the research teams started flooding in to prepare for the throngs of Minnesotans looking to get involved.

“Driven to Discover is an important tool, allowing many of my faculty colleagues to pursue research projects that were impossible, indeed unimaginable, before the development of the D2D Building,” explained LeBien. “It provides our researchers with unprecedented access to state fairgoers who are curious about what goes on at the University, and provides citizens with the opportunity to learn and sometimes participate in interesting research.”

Blue ribbon discoveries

Three years into this experiment, Driven to Discover’s researcher pool boasts an impressive amount of published research from their work alongside the Home Improvement Emporium and Creative Arts Building. In the shadows of a giant barbeque stand, researchers created a stimulus set using photos of adults and children to teach about emotions and identified potential educational needs for parents handling dermatitis in their children.

Another project focused sunscreen use by State Fairgoers. Researchers Megan Wood, M.D., Tom Raisenen, M.D., and Ingrid Polcari, M.D., partnered with the Minnesota State Fair, the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota, and Vanicream to offer sunscreen free at all the Information booths on the Fairgrounds. Throughout the Fair they observed from afar as people used the sunscreen, marking what areas they covered and if they used additional sun protection. The results? Most Fairgoers weren’t using sunscreen correctly or nearly often enough.

“Unfortunately, for most people sun protection is not a priority,” Polcari told reporters about her results. The paper noted only 51 percent of people used the free sunscreen on their arms, dropping to just over 3 percent of people covering their legs with the cream.

This year, 37 studies will be showcased at the D2D building, focusing on anything from poop to hand function, and brain connectivity to caring for elderly parents. 

A Fair future ahead

The airy new building brings a new focus on research, participant rights and education, something the University of Minnesota has made a priority. Working with the IRB and the University’s Libraries, a new video cycles through the building, ensuring folks who stop by understand what is being asked of them and how they can become citizen scientists by participating in projects inside.

World-Changing Research at the University of Minnesota

The Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI)’s StudyFinder has a prominent new place, encouraging folks who might not qualify for projects on the Fairgrounds to find places to plug in offsite. 

In the future, Demerath and Spector see an opportunity to expand and offer spaces to researchers from other Minnesota institutions. 

“The University of Minnesota prides itself on research and finding innovative ways to solve problems and address the needs of our state and world at large, but this building isn’t just about the work,” said Demerath. “This building is for listening to the needs of Minnesotans in the types of projects we offer and the knowledge they seek to bring back to our communities.”