$1.4 Million To Fund Environmental Outreach to Local Teachers

November 22, 2000

Area science, social studies and health teachers and their students will be the beneficiaries of a $1.4 million grant received by the University of Rochester Medical Center to teach students about environmental health issues. The seven-year project, funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), aims to prepare students for many of the decisions they'll be making as adults, regarding both their personal health and the wellbeing of society.

Environmental issues extend far beyond what type of plastic to toss into the recycling bin. What is the health impact of the chemicals used in agricultural areas? Just how high must our electric rates be to ensure an environment free of dangerous chemicals? Which fish are safe to eat, and which should be avoided?

The new program, "My Environment, My Health, My Choices," is an effort to get students thinking about these and other environmental health issues so they're prepared to wrestle with them as adults. Teams of science, health and social studies teachers from 15 high schools and middle schools in the Rochester area will work with Medical Center researchers, focusing on environmental health problems relevant to the Rochester area. Each team will develop its own curriculum for use in its school; ultimately the course materials created here will be packaged together and made available to schools around the country.

"This is part of an effort to help educate children about environmental health issues, so they will know how to make reasonable decisions in the future," says Dina Markowitz, Ph.D., the program director, who is also director of community outreach and education programs for the University's Environmental Health Sciences Center. "Many of these students are about to graduate, and they'll be voting soon. They need to be educated about these issues. Their votes will affect all of us.

"When most people consider environmental issues, they think simply of something like recycling. Most people don't have the knowledge or know-how to find answers to how their environment - including what they breathe, what they eat, and what they drink - affects their health. Students need to know that what they do and the knowledge they have can protect them from diseases that have an environmental component."

During the next seven years, Medical Center researchers will work closely with teachers from 15 schools still to be chosen. The teachers will attend a one-week workshop at the University, where they'll discuss environmental health and curriculum development. Three teachers from each school will be paired with a University expert who will serve as a mentor to the group, and the group will meet regularly to shape its ideas into a curriculum for its students. Markowitz says the topics that each group of teachers chooses will come from a list of environmental health concerns maintained by the Monroe County Health Department - topics such as water pollution of the Great Lakes, links between air pollution and asthma, or health problems related to pesticides.

The NIEHS funding will pay for the development of the curricula, the teachers' salaries during the workshops, and classroom materials and field trips for students.

Markowitz is the outreach director for the University's Environmental Health Sciences Center, one of the nation's leading sites for the study of the health effects of mercury, lead, cigarette smoke, and the byproducts of the energy processes that power our lives. Previously she created a series of workshops and other outreach efforts to educate local students and their teachers about science. The current project, targeting students nationwide beginning with a small group of teachers in the Rochester area, is the biggest program yet. Assisting Markowitz is Jan Moynihan, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and of microbiology and immunology, who has worked with Markowitz for a number of years on many science outreach programs.

The first group of teachers from five area high schools will begin training this summer. Middle school teachers will begin participating in 2003. Any schools interested in the program should contact Dina Markowitz at (716) 275-3171, dina_markowitz@urmc.rochester.edu.

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