Initial Publication Date: May 24, 2017

Planetary Health

Sara Stone, Harvard University

Pan African Approaches to Teaching GeoScience Workshop

Planetary Health is an emerging field that explores the human health impacts of accelerating environmental change. Within the field, themes such as water scarcity, changes in biogeochemical flows, changes in land use and land cover, civil strife and displacement and urbanization categorize the linkages at the intersection of health and environmental change. To teach these concepts, educators must utilize a systems-thinking approach, with a strong geoscience base and transdisciplinary content, and there is significant value in teaching geoscience within this rich, multi-disciplinary framework that is not exclusive to geoscience.

In practice, there is a need for the development of case studies in this emerging field, and there are a multitude of case study possibilities that lend themselves very well to teaching geoscience with a culturally competent and diverse Pan-African lens. These case studies also serve the dual purpose of engaging more meaningfully with this group of traditionally underrepresented students in the STEM fields, African-American students, as they speak directly to their historical and cultural contexts.

Examples of these case studies include exploring agricultural innovations like dam building and its impact on the burden of Schistosomiasis in West Africa; the role of prolonged drought in the conflict in Sudan and the resultant health challenges; the decline and collapse of fisheries in Madagascar and the impact this has on nutrition; the relationship between demographic shifts, ecosystem change and health in sub-Saharan Africa; the impact of deforestation on malaria in the Congo river basin; and many more. The transdisciplinarity of these case studies also helps to engage all students, not just those with an interest in science, as the relationships between geoscience and social science or political science or economics become apparent.

Challenges in attracting minority students to STEM and geoscience fields do not occur at only one point across the educational lifespan; there are constant external pressures to pull these students into other fields and so when we teach geoscience we must work to interest, engage and sustain these students over time. These case studies can be built to varying levels of complexity so that they can be utilized from elementary education on up. Furthermore, many of these case's pose unanswered questions and problems that need solutions, providing students with a clear arena for action such that their continued engagement with the sciences could allow them to develop solutions to challenges that disproportionally affect their ancestral lands and people.

Planetary health provides a valuable framework for teaching geoscience with a pan-African lens. The linkages between geoscience and health, culture and history, coupled with the opportunity to look for solutions, brings out the necessity of studying the context of a given geoscience question. This dynamic complex of features provides an amazing opportunity students to learn geoscience in the context of culturally relevant questions.

Downloadable version of this essay

Workshop Essay (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 163kB May2 17)