Setting a New Syllabus: Environmental Health Science in the Classroom

By Brown, Valerie J. | Environmental Health Perspectives, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Setting a New Syllabus: Environmental Health Science in the Classroom


Brown, Valerie J., Environmental Health Perspectives


In the last few decades, the importance of the relationship between humans and the environment has become prominent in the social consciousness. Recognition of this importance has come from new understanding of environmental health issues, including evidence that many environment-related health problems, such as asthma and neurological damage from lead exposure, affect children disproportionately. A number of efforts are under way around the nation to educate children about the concepts and principles of environmental health with the goal of expanding science education, empowering children to avoid some adverse environmental exposures, and helping them to grow into informed citizens who can assess and affect important public health issues.

Development of curricula and teacher competency in environmental health for kindergarten through twelfth grade (K-12) began in the early 1990s. Since then, environmental health education has been implemented in many individual schools, but still has far to go to be adopted into the standard curricula followed by most school districts and stares. For the most part, it is the initiative of individual teachers that brings environmental health into classrooms.

But while environmental health may not figure prominently on the radar screen of the educational establishment, education definitely figures on that of environmental health professionals. Institutions including the NIEHS, the NIH, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and some museums have committed significant resources to creating environmental health curricula that may eventually become part of a standard education in the United States.

Environmental Health: Health or Environment?

Although many, if not most, K-12 science curricula include environmental science components such as ecology and pollution remediation, few focus on environmental health. Environmental health is a multidisciplinary concept involving principles and methods from toxicology, epidemiology, endocrinology, public health, and other specialties. Whereas environmental science tends to address how human beings affect the rest of the biosphere, environmental health focuses on how the environment affects human health. Many environmental influences on human health are man-made--for example, pesticides, industrial chemicals, and air pollution--but environmental health also encompasses broad public health issues including tobacco use, infectious disease, indoor air quality and allergies, and sanitation.

Science and health tend to be separate tracks in typical curriculum frameworks. Marian Johnson-Thompson, director of education and biomedical research development at the NIEHS, says, "The likelihood of an environmental health course being taught is slim unless you're at a specialized high school or a private school." Moreover, says Lloyd Sherman, director of the Center for Excellence in Youth Education at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, if environmental health is taught, it's usually an elective.

Although there are many professional and citizen groups in the United States devoted either to the environment or to education, not many are working on environmental health education per se. The National Environmental Education & Training Foundation, a nonprofit environmental literacy group in Washington, D.C., has issued a position statement advocating environmental health education, but it is aimed at raising awareness of environmental factors in health among medical clinicians, not teachers. A 2003 meeting report by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit National Council for Science and the Environment titled Recommendations for Education for a Sustainable and Secure Future advocated that "education for sustainability" be incorporated into six broad aspects of elementary and secondary education: teacher education; standards and assessment; community education; school partnerships and real-world knowledge; curriculum development and distribution; research; and funding. …

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