Student Voices Make Important Contributions to Community Health Through Science

Submitted by Renee Bayer on

Young people from Flint and Clio area schools demonstrated that they have something to say about ways to improve the health of their communities.  On Tuesday January 15th, more than 300 sixth graders from Flint Community and Clio Area Schools presented together at the Youth Diabetes Health Summit in downtown Flint.  The student teams reported the findings from their Community Action Projects to answer the question, “How can we work together to make our community healthier?” The students have been studying Type 2 diabetes in science class as part of a new curriculum called, “Health in Our Hands: What Controls My Health?” They discovered how genetic risk factors and environmental factors such as poor diet and lack of exercise, put them at risk for disease. For their final project, students conducted a community action research project to improve their school or neighborhood to help prevent or reduce diabetes.

Sixth grade classes studied factors that affect healthy lifestyles.  Students at Doyle-Ryder Elementary School in Flint and Carter Middle School in Clio investigated how raising awareness about the amount of sugar we eat can affect students’ food choices.  Students at Freeman Elementary in Flint held a smoothie contest to study strategies for influencing family members to choose healthy smoothies. Two classes at Durant-Tuuri-Mott and Eisenhower Elementary Schools looked at the effects of peer pressure and “food buddies” on healthy food choices. Students at Holmes STEM Academy, Durant-Tuuri-Mott, and Neithercut Elementary Schools in Flint investigated the effects of different types of exercise and the amount of screen time on students’ well being.

At the Summit, students shared insightful, evidenced-based recommendations with over 75 family members and community experts. “The young people told me that when you change your diet and exercise habits you feel better, more focused, and get along better with other people,” said Pastor Jimmie Whitaker of MCAR Men's Community Action Resource. “I loved hearing the students talk about their work!” said Leyla Sankar of University of Michigan-Flint. “It raised awareness about and fostered empathy for individuals with diabetes. They definitely learned a lot about healthy choices.”

Similarly, on Thursday January 17th 190 seventh grade students at Carman-Ainsworth Middle School shared results from their community action projects at the Youth Addiction Prevention Health Summit. These students have been studying the biology of addiction in the new science curriculum called “Health in Our Hands: How can looking for thrills make me miserable?” to understand modern concepts in genetics. The students investigated how the brain’s reward pathway developed through natural selection and why this system can lead to addictive behavior in modern life. For their final project, students researched “How does social media affect my well-being?” Students shared results of surveys of family members, friends and students in other grades.  They reported on the duration of use of different kinds of social media and effects on feelings, attitudes, and behaviors.  Some students reduced their personal use of social media voluntarily and shared the impact on their own well-being. Over 25 family members and volunteers from the community attended the summit during one or more class hours of the day. “The students’ presentations helped me realize how knowledgeable they are about topics of their own interest and that they are truly experts in their own lives,” reflected Danielle McCoy of the Genesee County Health Department.

During both health summits on diabetes and addiction, students demonstrated that they can conduct research and present scientific information that can improve the lives of their loved ones. “Projects like these can have an impact on the community as the youth all noted they shared their results with their family and families were making changes,” said Dianna LaBonte, from Health Alliance Plan.

Community experts were also invited to introduce themselves and their career in a health or STEM-related field. Some shared information about a resource, program, or opportunity related to health or STEM, and invited students to extend their interest in science and community action outside of the classroom.

Behind every great student presentation is a dedicated and skillful teacher deserving of recognition and appreciation. Health in Our Hands included teachers from three participating school districts - Flint Community Schools: Kelley Blondin, Scott Davis, Whitney Ennis, Kathy Savoie, Robyn Seelye, Annette Sparks, David Sutton and Diane Baker-Williams; Clio Area Schools: Merin Brotherton; and Carman-Ainsworth Community Schools: Adam Cassel and Melissa Warburton.

Health in Our Hands, funded by NIH-Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA), is a project of MSU-CREATE for STEM Institute in collaboration with UM School of Public Health and other partners. The project is developing and testing new learning materials that blend classroom instruction and community-based learning to give both students and community members opportunities to apply ideas about gene-environment interactions and natural selection to their lives. The project is supported by the Health in Our Hands-Flint/Genesee Partnership: Community Based Organization Partners of Flint, Flint Community Schools, Genesee County Health Department, Genesee Intermediate School District, Genesys Health System, Greater Flint Health Coalition, Health Alliance Plan, Michigan State University-CREATE for STEM Institute & Extension, University of Michigan-Flint Discovering Place, and University of Michigan School of Public Health.

For more information, watch Flint NBC25 report: Flint, Clio schools team up for youth diabetes summit