New Haven high school students may be able to shed calories and reduce their risk for diabetes on the web this school year.

In 2009, School of Nursing Dean Margaret Grey NUR ’76 and nursing professor Robin Whittemore received a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study diabetes and obesity in at-risk teens. The resulting research study, “Reducing Obesity and Diabetes in High Risk Youth,” includes an educational Internet component — Health-e-Teen — that will launch in two weeks in health classes for sophomores at Hill Regional Career High School, West Haven High School and New Haven Academy.

“We need to get people thinking about eating healthier earlier,” West Haven high school’s physical health education coordinator Jon Capone said.

Health-e-Teen is designed to teach high school students healthy eating and physical activity practices necessary to reduce their risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes, Grey said. Grey and Whittemore began constructing the program when they saw a rise in the number of children suffering from type 2 diabetes — previously more rare than type 1, Grey added. She said she chose to include three New Haven public schools in the study because the public school population is at an especially high risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Rachel Popick NUR ’12, one of the nursing students who helped design the Health-e-Teen website, noted that the program teaches its lessons using an unusual medium: acting. The research staff worked with aspiring student actors from New Haven’s Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School this summer to produce the website’s video content, which is meant to resemble reality television, Grey said. The actors discuss health and exercise in various popular high school settings, like the dining hall and the gymnasium.

“We did our best to get back to our high school years to make characters that really help students relate,” Popick said. “The characters help students know that other students are interested [in nutrition] as well.”

To further help students connect with the lessons’ characters, Popick said the program was designed with an interactive feature: The characters respond with different scripted responses to students’ answers on the online content and quizzes.

Grey, Whittemore and students at the School of Nursing have been preparing to launch the program for a year, Popick said. Yesterday, the group began taking baseline measurements of the New Haven high school sophomores’ Body Mass Indices and weights. In two weeks, the students will begin to use the site to learn 12 lessons on the five food groups, fatty foods, calorie needs and the importance of exercise, Grey said.

The study also contains a second component: about half of the 500 students participating in the nutritional program will receive four additional lessons on health management skills. These students will learn problem solving and stress reduction strategies that are intended to help them apply the nutrition lessons to their daily lives, Grey said. The researchers will measure all students’ BMIs three times to determine whether the four additional lessons indeed aid weight loss and diabetes prevention, Popick said.

The study’s behavioral component was modeled after Grey’s previous type 1 diabetes study, TeenCope, she said. Grey said TeenCope results showed that children who learned coping strategies displayed an improved control of their diabetes, increased confidence in their ability to manage the illness and less weight gain than students who did not learn the same skills.

Grey said that if the program is successful, she and Whittemore will try to expand it to serve a larger population of at-risk youths.

Capone added that New Haven school administrators are on board with any tentative plans for broadening the program.

“I think [Health-e-Teen] is working out of the box,” Capone said. “It is something kids enjoy, done on a website they enjoy. It’s something there should be a lot more of.”

The study is set to conclude in two years.