Health Oasis in the Desert Southwest

By Barrett, Julia R. | Environmental Health Perspectives, May 2001 | Go to article overview

Health Oasis in the Desert Southwest


Barrett, Julia R., Environmental Health Perspectives


In the desert Southwest, communities are slaking their thirst for knowledge with an outreach program that is overflowing with environmental health information. The Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center (SWEHSC) at the University of Arizona in Tucson is one of 21 such centers that, along with 5 Marine and Freshwater Biomedical Sciences Centers and 1 Developmental Center, make up the 28 NIEHS core centers. Each center includes a Community Outreach and Education Program (COEP) that serves as an "information aqueduct," carrying the results of research on environmental health issues to the people affected by them, particularly those who are the most vulnerable.

At the SWEHSC, outreach efforts especially target schoolchildren. COEP director Stefani Hines, who holds master's degrees in both education and environmental science, has 10 years' experience in K-12 education. "Because of my comfort and connections in education, the majority of our program focuses on that target audience," she explains.

K-12 Education

The COEP Web site, located at http:// swehsc.pharmacy.arizona.edu/coep/, is a centerpiece of the center's.outreach efforts. Although it proves informative for anyone who is interested in toxicology, it is aimed mainly at teachers and their students. Among the educational resources are downloadable lectures, presentations, activities, and curricula, primarily intended for seventh- to twelfth-grade students.

The materials cover topics such as air quality and naturally occurring pesticides; lectures and presentations introduce users to cancer processes, toxicology basics, effects of nicotine and alcohol, and drug development from plant compounds. The site also describes K-12 programs in toxicology and environmental health science and programs that are currently in development. One Web-based offering is Cluster Busters, a curriculum that presents information on disease clusters and casts students as scientists charged with investigating the outbreaks.

The COEP also holds summer workshops for teachers. These workshops, collectively titled "Integrating High School Science Content Through Toxicology," adopt a different toxicologic focus each year and offer lectures by center researchers, research discussions, and hands-on activities. "I am proud to say we get many repeat participants, which is the ultimate compliment to a program," says Hines. Another program, the Environmental Health Sciences Training & Education Program, partners with eight other COEPs to incorporate toxicology into K-9 lesson plans. The program is taught to teachers who then further disseminate the guidelines to their colleagues.

Hines is especially proud of the Integrating Multiple Perspectives Across the Curriculum for Today and Tomorrow (IMPACTT) program. Beginning with the 2000-2001 school year, this program links all elements of the high school core curriculum to a central environmental health sciences theme. For example, one major project focuses on cancer, particularly tobacco-related cancer. In the basic biology portion of the project, students use the Ames test to see if a chemical causes cellular mutations. Math concepts and computer skills are used in learning about population statistics and conducting data analysis. Students then create a storyboard, write narration, and develop interview questions for a video that they film and edit themselves. Cancer treatment and prevention are researched, and students plant a garden containing foods high in antioxidants. A cultural aspect is included in the project with a guest speaker on American Indian uses of tobacco.

The program is designed with a particular emphasis on attracting American Indian students. Community members are asked to help infuse American Indian culture into the curriculum, for example, by providing the Indian names and traditional uses for plants being studied. As the program evolves it will address specific environmental health issues that disproportionately affect the American Indian community, such as mining, water rights, water pollution, and beryllium exposure through smokestack emissions.

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