Linking Science and Social Issues
Why is This Course a SENCER Model?
This course focuses on two related issues of growing national and international importance - malnutrition and diabetes. Nationally, 36.3 million people-including 13 million children-lived in households that experienced hunger or risk of hunger in 2004. Food insecurity rates were 22.1 % for African-American and 22.3 % for Hispanic households; double the national average. Globally, 852 million people across the world were hungry in 2004, up from 842 million the year before. In the developing worlds, 815 million people were undernourished and consumed less than the minimum amount of calories essential for sound health and growth.
Hunger manifests itself in many ways other than starvation and famine. Most poor people who battle hunger deal with chronic undernourishment and vitamin or mineral deficiencies, which result in stunted growth, weakness and heightened susceptibility to illness. Undernourishment negatively affects people's health, productivity, sense of hope and overall well-being. A lack of food can stunt growth, slow thinking, sap energy, hinder fetal development and contribute to mental retardation. Poor nutrition and calorie deficiencies cause nearly one in three people to die prematurely or have disabilities, according to the World Health Organization. Pregnant women, new mothers who breastfeed infants, and children are among the most at risk of undernourishment. The other extreme of malnutrition is obesity. Globally, more than 1 billion overweight adults are overweight and more than 300 million adults are clinically obese. The rate of obesity has increased approximately 3-fold since 1980. It is estimated that more than
115 million people suffer from obesity-related problems in developing countries and that this number is significantly increasing among children and adolescents.
Among the many risks associated with obesity is the development of type II diabetes. More than 177 million people worldwide suffer from diabetes, with that number expected to more than double by 2030. In the United States, 18.2 million people in US had diabetes in 2002 (6.3% of population) with almost 30% of those individuals remaining undiagnosed. Native Americans, Latino, and African-Americans are known to be at higher risk of diabetes. In 2000, diabetes was the sixth leading cause of death listed on US death certificates. Complications from diabetes can include heart disease and stroke, high blood pressure blindness, kidney disease and nervous system damage. In 2002 the estimated total cost of diabetes in the United States was $132 billion, with $40 billion reflecting indirect costs such as disability, work loss, and premature mortality.
What Strategies Does the Course Use to Both Advance Science Education and Foster Civic Engagement?
Strategies used in this course that serve both to advance science education and foster civic engagement include context-based active learning approaches, informal collaborative learning groups, "Just-in-Time Teaching", a final group presentation that focuses on "performance of understanding", and most recently a personal project intended to connect classroom topics to a real-life experience. Since Chemistry of Daily Life is a course that I've been teaching since 1998, some of the strategies described below had their origins before the course was consciously revised to incorporate a SENCER approach in Spring 2004.
The course naturally divides into two "halves". The first half focuses on helping students develop a degree of comfort with the "language" of chemistry. This is accomplished by using a combination of mini-lectures, in-class worksheets that provide students with multiple opportunities to engage in active use of chemical concepts, informal collaborative group work, and some open-ended discussion questions. Wherever possible, examples used in lectures and worksheets come from every day life; the worksheet on identifying organic functional groups uses the structures of various OTC drugs and flavorings. In the second half of the course, the same combination of mini lectures, worksheets, and informal group work are used to introduce how the language of chemistry provides insight into the body's use of various classes of molecules (fats, carbohydrates, proteins) as energy sources and how the body regulates these metabolic pathways. Malnutrition (undernutrition, obesity) and diabetes serve as the context through which scientific concepts important to understanding nutrition and metabolism are explored. In addition, we look at:
- the relationship between protein structure and function with particular emphasis on enzymes and hormone receptors
- the structure of DNA and how that is a key element of the technologies involved in genetic testing
- micronutrients and the potential consequences of micronutrient deficiencies
- toxicity and exposure in the context of risk assessment
- how drugs work and how new drugs are developed
Throughout the course students are asked to utilize many of these concepts in contexts that are rooted in civic engagement and responsibility. These include:
- recording what a student eats for an entire week and then evaluating that data in terms of current recommendations for good nutrition,
- a scenario where students must use scientific information to make a recommendation regarding whether or not a particular drug is safe enough to
- a case study where students must assume the role of a campus nutritionist and decide if they would allow foods with Olestra to be served in the campus cafeteria
The opportunity for students to demonstrate their understanding "by performance" comes at the end of the semester. In place of a final exam, students are required to complete a final group presentation. This presentation can focus on any topic related to chemistry and its applications to society that draws on concepts covered in the course.
Students are informed that the presentation should encompass both scientific concepts and a broader societal/civic perspective. They work together in groups of three (sometimes four) students to develop these presentations, which are given during final exams week.
Starting with the Spring 2004 semester, "Just-in-Time Teaching" (JiTT) has been an integral part of how the course is taught. As described on the JiTT web site (Just-in-Time-Teaching) JiTT is "a teaching and learning strategy based on the interaction between web-based study assignments and an active learner classroom. Students respond electronically to carefully constructed web-based assignments which are due shortly before class, and the instructor reads the student submissions 'just-in-time' to adjust the classroom lesson to suit the students' needs. Thus, the heart of JiTT is the 'feedback loop' formed by the students' outside-of-class preparation that fundamentally affects what happens during the subsequent in-class time together." JiTT questions served several purposes during the semester:
- they served as a way to assess what students did and did not understand from their reading prior to class
- they served as a way to assess student understanding of a concept after it had been covered in class
- they served as a way to have students apply chemical concepts to issues such as nutrition, the Olestra case mentioned above, and the evaluation of drug safety.
In the two semesters where JiTT was incorporated into the course, an anonymous survey at the end of the semester showed that over 80% of the students found that this approach was moderately, very, or very much helpful in terms of learning course material.
In the Spring 2005 semester, a personal project component was added to the course as a way to encourage students to connect the scientific concepts examined in class and the broader civic questions they relate to in a way that was much more personal than seems possible through just class discussion. Students could choose what their project was, although I did provide some suggestions: help with the Oxfam Fast for a World
Harvest organized by Campus Ministry, help Campus Ministry with their monthly feeding of homeless individuals in downtown Pittsburgh (this involves both helping to feed people and spending time with them), working with the campus Wellness Center on an educational activity related to diabetes or obesity. Regardless of what project they chose, students were asked to keep a log of the time they spent on the activity and to write a reflection paper at the end. The paper focused on three questions - what did the student do, what did they learn from the experience, and how did they see their experience as being connected to concepts covered in the course.
The next time I teach the course (either spring 2006 or spring 2007) I will most likely include an activity from the Doctors Without Borders Bracelet of Life curriculum (found at Doctors Without Borders). The activity I plan to use puts students in charge of supplying the food for a Supplementary Feeding Center run by Doctors Without Borders. Students are asked to write out a menu for the week, making sure that each child in the feeding program is given the correct balance of calories, protein and fat while at the same time being provided with meals that are varied and as inviting as possible. A food composition table is provided to help in the planning.
Chemistry of Daily Life has an accompanying lab. The primary goals of the lab are:
- to provide students with "hands-on" experience in using the scientific method
- to develop in students the ability to present and critique scientific work by communicating their findings to both classmates and the instructor
Almost all of the lab experiments have a strong applied emphasis. For example, the lab that focuses on stoichiometry and balancing chemical equations uses the analysis of sodium in chicken broth as its focus. Acid-base chemistry is done in the context of evaluating the cost effectiveness of various antacids. Various experiments related to food chemistry are done throughout the semester, and students finish by completing a synthesis and purification of aspirin.