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Environmental Factor

February 2011

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Students confront the human health effects of climate change

By Matt Goad
February 2011

Teacher Nina Daye

Three sections of teacher Nina Daye's advanced placement environmental science class participated in the EHP climate change lesson. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Program Manager Bono Sen, Ph.D. speaks with a small group

Sen worked the room during the small group discussions, listening to the students' responses to the reading material. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The Science Education Program staff at the journal Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) say they always enjoy visiting classrooms and talking to students about the scientific process and how scientists collect data to address key scientific questions. Program Manager Bono Sen, Ph.D., and Program Coordinator Carly Carroll had an opportunity to just do that, when they visited Orange High School in Hillsborough, N.C. Jan. 5.

During their visit, they gave a presentation on the complexities of climate change to students in teacher Nina Daye's advanced placement environmental science class, taking the students through a reading, small-group discussion, and hands-on exercise about the human health impacts of climate change based on one of the lesson plans they've developed using research published in EHP.

"Much of the instruction about climate change in schools is taught from the ecological perspective. Learning about the effects of climate change on human health will be key to engaging the students' interest in climate change science," Sen said. Daye agreed that looking at climate change from a human health perspective brings home the message.

"I think when people start to think, 'How's it going to affect my health?' it has more of an impact," Daye said. "It's not, 'Oh, it's just polar bears.'"

Sen and Carroll had the students complete an exercise to demonstrate how complex the climate change scenario is and how it will aggravate some existing diseases, while creating opportunities for others, such as malaria, to flourish in environments where they are currently not found. A key aspect of climate change education that Sen and Carroll want to impress upon the students is that climate change will impact not only the developing world but also the U.S.

Making the connections between climate and health

After introducing the lesson, Sen and Carroll divided the students into groups of five and assigned each group a disease to study, such as asthma or cancer. The students read a condensed version of the original information presented in an EHP research white paper. They identified the environmental impact - such as increase in temperature and precipitation; the associated environmental hazard - such as increase in ground level ozone and increase in pollen; and the health impact - such as increase in skin cancer and increase in respiratory tract ailments.

The small groups discussed how climate change will impact their assigned disease and wrote the name of the disease on one card, the impact of climate change on the disease on another, and the hazard developed on a third. They then placed the cards on the board at the front of the classroom and connected them by strings to show how the different diseases share impacts and hazards.

The lesson is one of ten that EHP is developing based on the research white paper "A Human Health Perspective on Climate Change" published by EHP and NIEHS in 2010 (see story(

(Matt Goad is a contract writer with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

Students connect note cards on a whiteboard

Students connected diseases, climate change impacts, and health hazards with colored yarn to bring home the message about the complexity of climate change impact on human health. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Program Coordinator Carly Carroll speaks to the class

Carroll responded to questions and comments from students as she concluded the lesson. She told the students that she was a student in advanced placement environmental science ten years earlier during high school in Charlotte, N.C. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Critical thinking about climate change

Toward the end of the presentation, Carroll reminded the students that their generation will be the one to witness the effects of climate change, and she encouraged them to become scientists and work toward mitigation of and adaptation to climate change.

One student remained skeptical after the lesson. "There needs to be a point where people start looking at the facts and stop just listening to what other people are saying," he responded, but when Carroll asked if he thought he was getting the facts in class, responded, "Pretty much."

He went on to say he believed climate change was real, but wasn't sure how the government should deal with it. Other students were convinced that immediate steps are necessary to deal with climate change.

"Some people are skeptical, but you can see that temperatures are rising," one said. Another referred to some data from the presentation, saying, "It's pretty crazy that the last ice age was just 7 degrees cooler than now, and that the average temperature could go up another 7 degrees" as a consequence of global climate change.

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