Postdocs reach out to Durham middle schoolers
By Eddy Ball
NIEHS trainees launched the largest volunteer apprenticeship ever Feb. 9 in the Citizen Schools program Feb. 9 at Lowes Grove Middle School in Durham, N.C. The project is a volunteer effort benefitting from financial support by the NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity, as well as training and hands-on experience in workshops offered by the Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) Science Education Program.
Standing in for trainee Nisha Cavanaugh, Ph.D., who serves as project coordinator, NIEHS biologist Mercedes Arana, Ph.D., joined trainees April Binder, Ph.D., Kristin Lichti-Kaiser, Ph.D., Darshini Trivedi, Ph.D., and Kirsten Verhein, Ph.D., to offer groups of middle schoolers a preview of what they could look forward to in the NIEHS “Healthy Lungs, Happy Living” series, which began officially Feb. 16.
Young scientists on a mission
The team was the first contingent of a 15-member group of trainees who have been preparing since September 2011 to serve as citizen teachers in the low-income school. The group is dedicated to preparing what they are calling environmental ambassadors from participants in the ten-week afterschool apprenticeship program, raising awareness of the importance of environmental health through a curriculum of instruction and hands-on learning activities.
“The first four weeks is about the respiratory system, how air pollution affects lung function, and how lungs function in the body,” said Trivedi. “The next three weeks, we’ll build a mechanical lung and show them the effects of smoking on lung health and of asthma as a respiratory disease. The last three weeks, they’ll prepare for what we call the WOW! event — an evening when the student apprentices invite their friends and families to showcase what they’ve learned and talk about what the program has meant to them.”
Making a difference and rounding out skill sets
The NIEHS scientists are part of a nationwide program that has proven its worth by boosting participants’ success rates. According to Citizen Schools follow-up since 2002, young people who were part of the program are 20 percent more likely to graduate from high school, attend classes more often, outperform their peers in six measures of student success, and are 80 percent more likely to attend college.
Since its start by former college roommates Eric Schwartz and Ned Rimer in 1995, Citizen Schools has spread to 18 cities throughout the nation, providing hands-on learning taught by AmeriCorps educators and volunteer experts from all fields — from science to law to finance and community service. The program operates in 31 schools and has served 4,500 students through the efforts of 4,200 volunteers.
Along with all they’re giving to their students, NIEHS citizen teachers will also be receiving. They are bringing their passion about science to young minds and helping change they way America thinks about education. They are also building important careers skills in planning, teaching, and team building.
Although they’ve benefited from advice from NIEHS outreach and education specialists Ericka Reid, Ph.D., Bono Sen, Ph.D., and John Schelp, this is a trainee-initiated, -built, and -operated program that will help the resumes and CVs of these young scientists stand out when it comes time to search for career opportunities.
And, as a bonus, the NIEHS citizen teachers are also having a lot of plain old fun doing their thing and doing it well.
The NIEHS team and its game plan
Each of the ten weekly modules is presented by a lead teacher (L) and volunteer(s).
- Feb. 16 — “Introduction to apprenticeship and knowledge assessment,” with Binder (L), trainee Michelle Heacock, Ph.D., trainee Bret Freudenthal, Ph.D., and Industrial Hygienist Sharon Beard
- Feb. 23 — “What the lungs do,” with staff scientist Elena Braithwaite, Ph.D. (L), trainee Ashley Godfrey, Ph.D., and trainee Danielle Watt, Ph.D.
- March 1 — “The importance of clear airways,” with Godfrey (L), Braithwaite, and EHP Science Education and Outreach Program Manager Bono Sen, Ph.D.
- March 8 —“How air pollution can affect lung function,” with Godfrey (L), and trainees Timothy Gingerich and
Gayle Hagler, Ph.D., a volunteer from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
- March 15 — “Building a mechanical lung,” with trainee Shay Covo, Ph.D. (L), Gingerich, and Sen
- March 22 — “Understanding the effects of smoking,” with Trivedi (L) and Gingerich
- March 29 — “Asthma as a respiratory disease,” with trainee Julie Lowe, Ph.D. (L), Gingerich, and Trivedi
- April 5 — “WOW! Preparations,” with Arana (L), Lichti-Kaiser, and Verhein
- April 19 — “WOW! Preparations,” with Verhein (L), Arana, and Lichti-Kaiser
- April 26 — “WOW! Preparations,” with Lichti-Kaiser (L), Arana, and Verhein
Several of the trainee volunteers in the NIEHS Citizen Schools apprenticeship are veterans of EHP Science Education Program workshops, such as the one held Aug. 2-3, 2011 for science educators (see story), where they gained self-confidence and experience teaching. The NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison, represented by Public Affairs Specialist Ed Kang, is working with the team to document the NIEHS Citizen Schools experience.