What controls your health?
It's a complicated question, but middle schoolers in the City of Flint and Genesee county area are able to answer that question, and more, with the Health In Our Hands project.
Now, they will be able to inspire even more change in their community.
The project is continuing thanks to a five-year, $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health Science Education Partnership Award, or NIH-SEPA.
"The kids and their teachers who have participated in this project are amazing," said Renee Bayer, a specialist at the Michigan State University CREATE for STEM Institute and principal investigator on the grant.
Health In Our Hands, or HiOH, develops, tests and implements learning materials, blending classroom instruction and community-based learning. The goal is to give students and community members opportunities to understand, explain and apply ideas about health-related phenomena to their lives. Through these units, students investigate diabetes and addiction.
In the curriculum, students uncover answers to big questions like "what controls my health?" by participating in classroom activities and community action research. All lessons—which include deep-dives into gene-environment interactions, natural selection and evolution—are aligned with Next Generation Science Standards, and give teachers, students, family and community members a chance to interact and learn from one another. At the end of the units, students present their findings at open house and science fair-type events.
To date, more than 1,800 students and 20 teachers across Detroit, Flint and Genesee County school districts have participated in designing and testing the curriculum.
Their experience revealed some challenges: The units are vastly different than those teachers are familiar with, and making community connections can be difficulty to orchestrate and sustain.
That's where the latest funding from NIH-SEPA comes in. Bayer and colleagues are reshaping HiOH to help it become more sustainable. The researchers will:
- Extend the curriculum to high school, and develop useful classroom assessments teachers have asked for,
- Conduct workshops for teachers to build a professional learning community and connect teachers with out-of-school educators
- Work with community partners, such as health-related organizations and extracurricular programs, to outline more explicit strategies for ongoing coordination.
"No one expects middle school kids to be so insightful," Bayer said. "The community is invested in the results. They have said [student] recommendations have affected how the community runs their programs. What the kids are saying and coming up with in their projects is important."
This is most evident in the formation of the HiOH Flint/Genesee Partnership, a coalition of organizations working toward the sustainability of the project throughout Flint and beyond. The continued success of the HIOH program, and this partnership, gives Bayer and other team members hope the project will expand to even more locations state- and nationwide.
Most importantly, the project remains rooted in what started it all: enhancing the learning of students.
By learning what controls their health, young people can understand their health is not fated by their genes. They can make decisions, and take actions that impact their own lives and the lives of their loved ones.
"The students feel like leaders after finishing these units," Bayer added. "They're building skills, they're learning about STEM careers. They're learning they can have an effect in creating change in their community."