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Environmental Factor, June 2012

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Postdocs and apprentices wow middle school students

By Ed Kang

Bill Schrader, Ph.D.

NIEHS Deputy Scientific Director Bill Schrader, Ph.D., left, showed his support of the program and volunteers, most of them from the NIEHS Division of Intramural Research. After an evening of spirited discussion, he remarked, “I don’t know who smiled the most — the young scientists or their NIEHS teachers.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

A student explains the relationship between happy lungs and happy living

The students became the teachers, as they explained to friends, family, and faculty the relationship between happy lungs and happy living. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Since early February, NIEHS fellows and other staff have volunteered at Lowe's Grove Middle School in Durham, N.C., as part of a unique apprenticeship program called Citizen Schools. The project “Healthy Lungs, Happy Living,” partnered low-income, middle school students with local scientists, to gain hands-on experience in environmental health. After an intensive 10-week immersion, the young apprentices showed off their new knowledge May 3 for parents, family, friends, and the community in a public showcase called WOW!

Developing environmental ambassadors

Nisha Cavanaugh, Ph.D., who served as one of the project coordinators, was the initial driving force for getting NIEHS staff involved in the program, in part to fulfill a desire to be closer to the community in NIEHS’ backyard. Biologist Mercedes Arana, Ph.D., who was a project coordinator and one of the principal instructors, said, “The ‘Healthy Lungs, Happy Living!’ apprenticeship has given us an opportunity to teach what we know and love, and lead these students through a stimulating journey.”

During the WOW! event, the apprentices, under the tutelage of their volunteer coaches, showcased what they learned at four stations, to measure lung capacity, visualize oxygen and carbon dioxide using phenol red, demonstrate how the lungs work, and describe the relationship between asthma and the environment.

“The 10-week program has given these environmental ambassadors a sneak peek at science, and it’s provided them an opportunity to teach back to their friends and family what they’ve learned,” said Arana.

In addition to teaching at Lowe’s Grove once a week, Cavanaugh, Arana, and the other volunteers had to create meaningful lesson plans and develop teaching materials. In fact, their preparations began in September 2011 with the decision to develop the theme “Healthy Lungs, Happy Living.” Each week’s lesson represented a unique enrichment activity, which was taught during the after-school program for sixth- to eighth-graders.

The first four weeks taught students about the respiratory system, how air pollution affects lung function, and how lungs function in the body. Next, the students built mechanical lungs, and learned about the effects of smoking on lung health and of asthma as a respiratory disease. The last three weeks, they spent preparing for the WOW! event — honing their presentation skills and demonstrating their new knowledge.

In all, nearly 20 NIEHS staff members, representing several divisions of the Institute, took part in the program to raise awareness of the importance of environmental health through a curriculum of instruction and hands-on learning activities. A scientist from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also joined the group.

Additionally, the effort benefited from financial support by the NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity (OSED), and resources offered by the Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) Science Education Program. OSED Director Ericka Reid, Ph.D., said of the program, “We are hopeful that this kind of activity is just the beginning for NIEHS, as we seek to engage the next generation of environmental health scientists.”

Volunteers in the Lowes Grove Middle School program included the following:

NIEHS Trainees:
April Binder, Ph.D.Ashley Godfrey, Ph.D.Bret Freudenthal, Ph.D.
Danielle Watt, Ph.D.Darshini Trivedi, Ph.D.Jen Nichols, Ph.D.
Jon Ciencewicki, Ph.D.Julie Lowe, Ph.D.Kirsten Verhein, Ph.D.
Kristin Lichti-Kaiser, Ph.D.Michelle Heacock, Ph.D.Nisha Cavanaugh, Ph.D.
Shay Covo, Ph.D.Tim Gingerich 


NIEHS Staff:
Mercedes Arana, Ph.D., biologist
Elena Braithwaite, Ph.D., staff scientist
Sharon Beard, industrial hygienist
Ed Kang, public affairs specialist
Bono Sen , Ph.D.

Gayle Hagler, Ph.D.


(Ed Kang is a public affairs specialist in the Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)

Mercedes Arana, Ph.D.

Arana not only brought her knowledge to the program, but also her passion for inspiring the next generation of scientists. Clearly, her enthusiasm is contagious! (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Nisha Cavanaugh, Ph.D. with Lowe's Grove Middle School students

Cavanaugh, who has been involved in NIEHS postdoc activities as part of the NIEHS Trainees Assembly, was instrumental in the Institute’s involvement in the Citizen Schools program. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Anton Jetten, Ph.D.

Anton Jetten, Ph.D., head of the NIEHS Laboratory of Respiratory Biology, left, showed that he knows a thing or two about pulmonary function in the lung capacity demonstration. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Jen Nichols, Ph.D., Kirsten Verhein, Ph.D., and students

Nichols, second from left, and Verhein, second from right, were heavily involved in prepping students for their WOW! presentations. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Citizen Schools students and volunteer instructors

Students and volunteer instructors enjoyed a moment of levity, as 10 weeks of intense preparation and practice came to fruition. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Citizen Schools

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 attend classes more often, outperform their peers in six measures of student success, are 20 percent more likely to graduate from high school, and are 80 percent more likely to attend college.

Since its start by former college roommates Eric Schwarz and Ned Rimer in 1995, Citizen Schools has spread to 18 cities throughout the nation, providing hands-on learning taught by AmeriCorps educators and Citizen Schools. from all fields — from science and 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.

In a message to the NIEHS Citizen Schools team, Sarah Rabiner, national teaching fellow and academic program lead of the Citizen Schools at Lowe's Grove Middle School, congratulated the team on its outstanding program. “A huge thanks to you all for creating and leading the best apprenticeship I have supported in my time at Citizen Schools,” she wrote. “It was beyond a pleasure to work with such a dedicated group of volunteers who are so committed to the students.”

“Know that you set the bar very high for any future group!” Rabiner added. “You should be so proud of the work that you did. Those of you who made it to the WOW! saw the impact on students — they were flawless presenters!”

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