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Real-World Science - The RSPH and Emory engage Atlanta high school students in research affecting their health and communities
Faculty and students in the Rollins School of Public Health (RSPH) are about to gain 200 new research partners. Their soon-to-be investigators often have first- or second-hand knowledge of possible research topics, including risk factors such as diet and obesity and risky behaviors such as substance abuse, violence, and sex. In fact, these new partners will be the major drivers in choosing what issues to study. Being 9th and 10th graders, they first need some training in research methodology and ethics.
     Emory faculty, including those from the RSPH, will provide that training in collaboration with the students’ teachers. All want to transform the students’ perception of science from a mysterious “black box” into a powerful and accessible process that can address issues affecting students and their communities. They also want to model to these students about what it means to be a scientist and encourage them to consider science as a career.
     The program is part of a $900,000 grant to Emory from the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation’s Pathways to Success. Spread over 2 1/2 years, the grant will help raise student achievement at the New Schools at Carver. The “old” George Washington Carver High School was one of Atlanta’s lowest performing secondary schools. The “New” Schools at Carver is designed to change that with small, personalized environments; rigorous college-prep curricula; and strong community partnerships that include Emory and other Atlanta-area universities.
     The Blank Foundation grant to Emory calls for mentoring, tutoring, and postsecondary preparation for students and professional developmental support for teachers in various disciplines at Carver. It also includes the creation of specialized career readiness opportunities in Health Sciences and Research (HSR), one of the five schools at Carver.
     Interdisciplinary by design, the Carver initiative is led by Pat Marsteller, director of the Emory College Center for Science Education and the Howard Hughes Undergraduate Science Initiative. Serving with her are faculty and graduate students in the College, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, and the RSPH. Carey Drews-Botsch and Fleda Jackson of the RSPH, Madge Donnellan of the School of Nursing, and Michelle Lampl of the Department of Anthropology are collaborating with HSR faculty and students at Carver.
     “Whatever our research specialization, we are joined by our commitment to engaging the broadest community possible in how good science works,” says Marsteller.
The New Schools at Carver has strong ties to Emory designed to enhance high school students' performance in health sciences and research, the arts and other disciplines.
Learning about science
Although much of the research to be done by Carver students is yet to be determined, the groundwork is now being laid. Twelve 9th and 10th graders recently began orientation at Emory, with a longer summer enrichment program scheduled for May. Many of their teachers are involved in Emory-led courses in problem-based learning and are working with Emory faculty and graduate students to develop science curricula and study materials for their students. Lampl is designing a practicum experience for Emory graduate students and a new course in science in action for undergraduates. Additionally, Lampl, Drews-Botsch, Jackson, and Donnellan will work with Emory students and HSR teachers to integrate individual and community health into the science and math curriculum at Carver.
     Their goal is to teach Carver students how to apply thinking skills to science instead of learning seemingly unrelated facts. This spring, approximately 200 HSR students participated in a health risk appraisal, administered by Donnellan and using questions from the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Each student received a report on his or her own risk profile and compared it to national data from the CDC and to aggregated data for HSR students. The data, minus the students’ names, will be used to design the science curriculum around problem-based learning.
     “This kind of problem-based learning, built on their own data, should make information very real to the students,” says Donnellan. “For example, information gathered from the group about eating behavior, exercise, and weight may give new significance to the study of metabolism in biology class. If members of the class already have risk factors for high blood pressure, knowing that will add new punch to the study of factors influencing blood pressure.”
Sound research, sound ethics
Carver students will use what they learn to help design community-based research. This type of research is a negotiated process between investigator and community in terms of what is studied and how it is examined, notes Jackson, who studies how stresses related to race and gender affect health, especially among African American girls and women. The Carver initiative is “a wonderful opportunity for students to become involved in determining the questions they want to ask—questions imbedded in their lives and the lives of their families—and then learning the tools they will need to ask those questions in a scientific way,” she says. “These questions will allow us to acquaint students with issues around health equity as well as health disparity, a concept that helps us move from a deficit approach to a more activist approach.”
     The health risk appraisal will serve as a solid springboard for explaining how epidemiology is used to determine health risk. Its 60-plus questions are often highly personal, not only asking about the individual student’s diet and weight, but also about drug use, weapon use, experience with violence, sexual behavior, and mental health. Given its content, the health risk appraisal makes an equally strong springboard for discussing the importance of research ethics and the protection of human subjects. Public health and nursing faculty and students will provide training in research ethics principles and methodology. Carver teachers and students will undergo the same research ethics and methodology certification process as Emory faculty and students.
     After completing their training, Carver students and teachers will partner with Emory faculty to design their own research program to study health and health disparities in their communities. As the program matures over the next four years, and as Carver adds 11th- and 12th-graders, the program will integrate research into classes for 1,100 students.
     With time, says Marsteller, the New Schools at Carver will have more teachers with more experience in research and strategies, such as inquiry- and problem-based learning, which have proven to be effective in increasing student performance. Students should have better skills in math and science, making them more eligible for HOPE scholarships and college admission. With more students engaged, fewer will drop out of high school. Some will follow their Emory faculty and student mentors into science careers.
     Drews-Botsch, director of the epidemiology doctoral program at the RSPH, has an additional goal. The Young Epidemiology Scholars Program offers college scholarships to U.S. students who conduct epidemiology research. She will pair doctoral students with up to four Carver students to develop projects with the goal of winning a scholarship.
     In her view, the New Schools at Carver initiative is a win-win for everyone. “Working with Carver,” she says, “will give us all a different perspective on the power of science to create change.”

Sylvia Wrobel is former associate vice president for health sciences communications at Emory.


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