Project introduces K-12 students to environmental toxicology

March 26, 2010

University Park, Pa. -- Scientists and education specialists in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences are developing an innovative new educational program aimed at helping young people understand the relationships between environmental quality and human health.

Supported by a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, the two-year project will incorporate cutting-edge biomedical science, Web 2.0 technology and expertise in instructional design to deliver a curriculum in environmental toxicology to K-12 students, as well as to school-aged youth in after-school programs, such as 4-H.

The grant is part of federal stimulus funding authorized under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

"A large number of school students express concern about environmental quality, but they often don't make the connection to how science can help solve environmental problems," said James Endres Howell, one of the principal investigators on the grant. "Our goal is to make that connection explicit and to interest students in research careers."

Howell, program coordinator for the Toxicology major in the college's veterinary and biomedical sciences department, said the project will support job creation in the short term with the hiring of a full-time curriculum coordinator, a multimedia designer and an instructional designer. He noted that the curriculum coordinator, R. Timothy Smith, is already on board, bringing decades of experience in teaching and curriculum development.

Howell said project objectives will be accomplished by:

-- developing curriculum modules that provide inquiry-based teaching and learning, in part through a Web-based video social-media platform;

- -delivering professional-development opportunities for teachers and student teachers;

-- providing research experience for a select number of talented high school students, who will spend seven-week summer research internships in Penn State toxicology laboratories; and

-- offering inducement scholarships to encourage outstanding students from the summer internship program to pursue undergraduate toxicology studies and research careers.

"The focus will be on relevance, including the possible environmental components of human diseases such as cancer, autoimmune disorders, allergy and asthma, and lead poisoning, as well as neuronal disorders like autism, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and so on," Howell explained.

The new curriculum will address national and Pennsylvania academic standards, according to Tracy Hoover, professor and head of agricultural and extension education, who will lead the project with Howell.

"With the college's strengths in toxicology research, curriculum development and teacher education, we think we can offer a unique program," Hoover said. "We believe the use of social-media technology will engage young people and give students and teachers the opportunity to participate and interact in new ways, such as uploading video results of experiments to share online with others."

Hoover pointed out that nonformal education will take place, as well, through after-school programs offered by 4-H, the youth-development program administered by Penn State Cooperative Extension. "This curriculum dovetails well with the 4-H Science, Engineering and Technology initiative, which is aimed at helping to prepare one million youths for science careers by the year 2013."

Hoover said existing connections her department and the curriculum coordinator have with educational systems will help to gain buy-in from teachers and school districts, and she expects curriculum materials to be piloted in schools as early as this fall.

"This is a huge opportunity to engage students in easily replicated, science-based experiences that have implications in the real world," she said. "We want to raise awareness of how environmental toxins may affect our health and at the same time enhance the scientific literacy of future generations."

  • An undergraduate Toxicology student works in a Penn State laboratory.

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated November 18, 2010