Environmental Factor, August 2010, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
EHP Takes Environmental Health Education to the Next Level
By Thaddeus Schug
Science teachers from across central North Carolina gathered at NIEHS July 7-8 for a workshop titled "Air, Water and You," sponsored by the Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) Science Education Program (http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/science-ed-new/) and the University of North Carolina (UNC) Superfund Research Program (http://www.uncsrp.org/) . The workshop was the first in a series of new initiatives designed by EHP to enhance environmental health education in secondary schools.
The 21 attendees engaged in two days of participatory lessons and presentations from scientists who introduced them to new developments in the field of environmental health science. They also went behind the scenes with tours of the Comparative Genomics Lab, where they saw experiments with C. elegans, and the NIEHS Clinical Research Unit, where human-subject experiments are getting underway.
The event organizers, EHP Program Manager for Education and Outreach Bono Sen, Ph.D., and UNC Institute for the Environment K-12 Science Education Manager Dana Haine (http://www.ie.unc.edu/content/about/people/faculty_page.cfm?ID=1904) , explained that the EHP lessons promote teaching of interdisciplinary science and encourage students to apply what they've learned in the classroom to real-life situations. Haine showed teachers how a relatively simple demonstration, such as dropping food coloring into different sized flasks, can teach fundamental lessons about the effects of dose on toxicity.
"The EHP lessons enhance environmental health literacy of the students by engaging them with real-life scenarios and incorporating hands-on and critical thinking activities into the lesson plan," noted Sen. The teachers also appeared to enjoy the learning experience. "This is the best workshop I've been to in years," said Daniel West, of Wake County's Middle Creek High School, as he engaged in a version of environmental tic-tac-toe exercise conducted by Duke University Postdoctoral Fellow Michelle Larrea, Ph.D., that turned researching the health effects, regulatory standards, and sources of toxic substances into a game.
Scientists Teaching Teachers
Experts from NIEHS, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Duke, and UNC presented lesson modules designed by the EHP Science Education Program to the group of teachers who played the role of middle and high school students. The platform offered an opportunity for teachers to learn from experts and to participate in hands-on learning activities.
Several NIEHS scientists used the workshop as an opportunity to gain valuable teaching experience. Postdoctoral Fellow Sophie Bolick, Ph.D., taught a lesson titled "Risk Factor Roulette," in which students determined if risks associated with certain diseases were due to environmental, genetic, inherent, or behavioral factors. Biologist Mercedes Arana, Ph.D., presented a lesson on the importance of healthy streams in reducing pollutants, "Streamside Schematic."
Postdoctoral Fellow Erin Hooper, Ph.D., wrapped up the workshop with a critical thinking lesson called "Consider the Source." Participant Stephanie Blochowiak of Jordan High School in Durham County applauded Hopper's approach to evaluating scientific information sources saying, "I think it's good to bring in the bigger picture."
The workshop also featured presentations by guest speakers. NIEHS toxicologist Jean Harry, Ph.D., discussed risks associated with toxic exposure to the brain and nervous system and offered the teachers an overview of the brain's complex structure. Several of Sen's colleagues at EPA, where she completed her postdoctoral fellowship, participated as well, including Ron Williams, Patricia Gillespie, Ph.D., Laura Jackson, Ph.D., and Drew Pilant, Ph.D.
EHP has developed hundreds of lessons
EHP has developed more than 100 high-quality science and interdisciplinary lessons based on selected News and Research articles published in the journal. Although the lessons are aligned with National Science Education Standards (http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=4962) in biology, chemistry, environmental science, geology, and physical science, they highlight the interconnection between human health and the environment. The lessons target students in grades 9-12, although many are also appropriate for undergraduates. All lessons can be downloaded free of charge from the EHP Science Education website.
EHP plans to advance its science education and outreach program by conducting more workshops, developing an interactive website for teachers and students, and adding new lesson resources for teachers.
In comments and evaluations, the teachers praised the organization and scope of the workshop. "I love the format," said Sister Janet Schemmel, head of the science department at Raleigh's Cardinal Gibbons High School.
(Thaddeus Schug, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral research fellow in the NIEHS Laboratory of Signal Transduction and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)
New Features of the EHP Science Education and Outreach Program
- A core team of lesson-plan developers, including high school and college science teachers as well as environmental health science researchers.
- Lesson plan reviewers, including scientists, educators, and teaching faculty.
- Updated Web site to include, Lesson of the month, student fellowships and awards announcements, book reviews, blogs in which instructors can exchange ideas and experiences, and video links.
- Faculty development workshops that incorporate EHP teaching materials
- Workshops on scientific writing and science communication targeted toward graduate students, fellows, and international students
- Expansion of the program to non-Anglophone countries, including Chinese and Spanish translations of existing lessons.