Two Penn State science education researchers recently spent three weeks in Ghana to facilitate a cooperative educational program between American and Ghanaian K-12 students in the study of disease outbreaks.
Annmarie Ward, director of Penn State’s Center for Science and the Schools (CSATS), and CSATS assistant director Leah Bug visited the West African nation as part of a five-year STEM research project known as ReBUild, funded by the National Science Foundation. The project focuses on linkages between land disturbance through mining and logging, severe rainfall events, and outbreaks of an aggressive tropical skin disease called Buruli ulcer.
The sister-school arrangement features a collaboration between students at Penns Valley School District (in Spring Mills, Pa.) and students at two high schools and two elementary/junior high schools in Ghana.
Ghana, as well as several other countries in the tropics, has been afflicted in recent years by Buruli ulcer, a flesh-eating disease of the skin and soft tissue caused by toxin-producing mycobacteria. The bacteria, which belong to the same family of organisms that cause leprosy and tuberculosis, thrive in stagnant water and other poor-quality aquatic environments. It is believed that Ghana’s problem with Buruli ulcer is related to environmental disruptions caused by gold mining operations in the region. The science researchers are trying to find out what causes transmission of the disease to humans, something unknown even to the World Health Organization.
The sister-school arrangement yields important educational opportunities for students in both countries, as they learn about how physical and social scientists examine factors that lead to disease outbreaks and then do their own investigations using similar techniques.
Penns Valley students are investigating the spread of West Nile Virus and Lyme disease in central Pennsylvania to determine how the disease relates to landscape disturbance, climate change, vector ecology, and other factors. Meanwhile, students in Ghana are examining the complex relationships behind Buruli ulcer outbreaks that are affecting primarily women and children in their communities. Students at each location will then use that knowledge to engage in their local research projects, and they will share their findings with their sister-school counterparts for peer review of their completed work.
The joint work is expected to serve as a basis from which the two groups of students can teach one another about human-environmental dynamics in their respective communities. Based on the knowledge they develop, the students will be asked to create disease-prevention materials to share in their communities.
Their work could aid in disease prevention in their respective communities, which could ultimately decrease the number of infected people,” noted Bug.
During their visit to Ghana, Ward and Bug worked with Ghanaian teachers to understand their overall educational system as well as local school routines and teaching requirements. Ward and Bug also shared information about teacher professional development workshops they had been implementing with the Penns Valley teachers and discussed best ways to provide similar workshops for the Ghanaian teachers.
The overarching goal was to synchronize the efforts of the students at the sister schools to ensure that they were moving forward in parallel. “The ReBUild project offers two benefits,” said Ward, “the knowledge gained about scientific research and the opportunity for a rich cultural exchange.”
The first activity in Ghana was teacher professional development. Ward and Bug conducted four teacher workshops and two student programs. Collaborating with scientists from the University of Mines and Technology (UMaT), Ward and Bug designed a workshop to instruct teachers on complex systems science and a concept mapping process the scientists called “spaghetti mapping”--a strategy used to determine the areas of focus for the disease outbreak research. This teacher workshop was provided at the four participating schools: Tarkwa Senior High School, Boa Amponsem Senior High School, Subin Hill Angelica School, and Pokukrom Elementary School.
A duplicate workshop was offered to students at the two high schools, with teachers using the knowledge gained in their workshop to help work with the students.
In a robust display of interest, some 300 students showed up for the after-school workshop at the high school in Tarkwa--the CSATS directors had expected perhaps 100 to 125 student participants.
Ward noted that while many Ghanaian students have good knowledge of scientific principles, they rarely get a chance to practice the facts they have learned in the classroom. “This project gave them an opportunity to apply their knowledge,” she said.
Another focus of the trip was to share the differences and similarities between Ghanaian and American schools, people, and their culture. While there, teachers and scientists made it possible for Ward and Bug to experience many facets of Ghanaian culture, including a wedding, observations of classrooms, discussions about customs related to various tribes, shopping at local markets, and visits to homes with delicious traditional meals.
“Cultural understanding is an important educational component, as it broadens the students’ global awareness, hopefully leading to increased understanding and compassion,” Bug noted.
“We also learned interesting cultural elements to share with Penns Valley teachers and students, developing relationships with the Ghanaian people that will help us work together as the education plan unfolds. It was an extremely successful trip,” stated Ward.
The ReBUild program is a collaboration among university science researchers from both US and Ghanaian universities, science educators at CSATS, and K-12 teachers in Penns Valley and Ghana. Penn State Associate Professor of Geography Petra Tschakert is the project’s principal investigator, who works closely with her key Ghanaian counterpart, Richard Amankwah, UMaT associate professor and dean of students.
Last year, Tschakert and colleagues completed their fifth trip to Ghana as part of the ReBUild project. They provided research collaborators with video equipment as a way to introduce documentation of daily activity spaces among Buruli ulcer patients.
By tracing their activities through community mapping, GIS way points, and upcoming participatory modeling, the researchers aim to determine the community’s exposure to disturbed environments that seem to be ideal breeding grounds for the bacteria that cause the disease and ways to increase awareness about the complex linkages between environmental drivers and human susceptibility.