Environmental Health Investigators: Building STEM Interest to Promote Careers in the Health Sciences

  • Abstract

    Racial and ethnic minorities are underrepresented in the field of environmental health sciences, despite good job prospects and the need for diverse perspectives to ensure the well-being of all communities. Learning science in out-of-school (informal) settings is a promising approach to generate interest in science because students are able to work on community-based projects over an extended period, immersing themselves in the process of science while learning success skills for the workplace such as teamwork, problem-solving, and critical thinking. However, there are limited opportunities to learn about environmental health sciences and related careers, particularly for minority youth who live in areas of concentrated poverty. The long-term goal of this project is to understand how to best generate and sustain an interest in health sciences that ultimately alters students’ education and career pathways. The central hypothesis is that middle school students will develop and sustain a strong interest in science if they 1) participate in authentic science in a real-world context, 2) engage with and understand relevant scientific content that connects to their community, 3) interact regularly with professional scientists, and 4) act as and be seen by others as scientists. Towards attaining the long-term goal, the overall objective of this project is to develop, implement, and study an out-of- school time program in which underserved middle school youth (ages 11-13) participate in authentic scientific investigations of environmental health sciences in their community and present their findings to their families, community members, and a broader audience. The rationale for the proposed project is that a project-based curriculum can increase science skills and career awareness and, after testing and refinement, be replicated with other populations. The objective of the project will be accomplished by three specific aims: (1) Develop a modular out-of-school curriculum in environmental health sciences that emphasizes student choice and place- based learning, (2) Implement the student program in communities of concentrated poverty in Madison County, Illinois through a partnership with local community organizations, and (3) Provide professional development for educators in community-based environmental health sciences. The proposed program is significant because it (a) generates new knowledge about science interest development, (b) provides a model for environmental health science education in low-income urban communities, and (c) creates portable curriculum units that formal and informal educators can adapt to their specific teaching contexts. The project is innovative because it (a) utilizes a novel combination of high-impact educational practices to reach the intended audience, (b) applies Environmental Photovoice methodologies with youth, (c) unites partner organizations that typically do not work together around the common goal of developing the scientific skills and health career interests of at-risk youth, and (d) uses student choice and community relevance as central tenets for curriculum design and programming.

Project Photos

  • Image taken by student presenting air quality issues in southwest Illinois

Project Audience

Image taken by student presenting air quality issues in southwest Illinois


Public Health Relevance Statement

Narrative As underserved communities shoulder an unfair burden when it comes to environmental health risks such as air pollution, excess noise, and contaminated soil, it is critical to empower these communities with the knowledge, skills, and tools to effectively assess and mitigate their risk. The growing availability of high-tech sensors offers an opportunity to engage underserved youth in authentic and personally relevant environmental health monitoring activities, helping them to become environmental health advocates for themselves and their community, both now and into the future. This project will engage minority youth in authentic science activities, developing skills and generating interest in health science and health-related careers, creating a new and diverse generation of health scientists.