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Rochester Area Pupils Connect Environment to Health

Current Events Add Social Context, Provoke Curiosity

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Not long ago, studying ecology in school meant learning how to recycle. Today, a curriculum developed by the University of Rochester Medical Center teaches children how to think outside that bright blue box, and examine the connection between the environment and human health.

Fifth graders at Laurelton-Pardee Intermediate School in East Irondequoit, for example, are completing a unit that allows them to explore a nearby creek, discover the source of a fictitious pollutant, and then brainstorm ways to solve the problem. Is it pesticide runoff? Pet waste? Dumped motor oil? This month, some of the students will present their final analyses in class, aided by posters, computers, and film.

“It’s a really nice moment to show how we’ve been working in the schools, putting science into a social context and giving teachers the tools to intelligently address how the environment affects health,” says Dina Markowitz, Ph.D., associate professor of Environmental Medicine and director of the UR Center for Science Education and Outreach.

Through a $1.3 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Markowitz’s group developed a program called “My Environment, My Health, My Choices.” Classroom teachers use it in about a dozen urban, suburban and rural schools, for grades five to 12. It helps teachers incorporate current topics, such as lead poisoning, air and water pollution and pesticide use, into science classes and non-science units in English, social studies, math, art and technology, for example.

“Our approach has been to let teachers drive the subject matter,” adds Camille Anne Martina, Ph.D., a research assistant professor in Environmental Medicine, who has worked directly with many schools. “We’re so impressed with the level of interest and sophistication among the students, even as young as fifth grade. They are asking some of the questions that highly trained scientists are investigating. And that bodes well for science education.”

  The classroom work also encourages students to stay informed about health and the environment. Some use their final projects to inform others in the community. “It’s great to see these students develop expertise in certain areas and then teach others, because they come to understand they can make a difference in society,” says David Hursh, Ph.D., associate professor of Teaching and Curriculum at the university’s Margaret Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development. He is working as a consultant on the grant.

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