Epi Challenge sparks science career interest in central Pennsylvania high school students

January 23, 2015 at 1:28 pm Leave a comment

Team Fab Five at Middletown High School takes part in the Epi Challenge with their teacher, Terri O’Neil.

Team Fab Five at Middletown High School takes part in the Epi Challenge with their teacher, Terri O’Neil.

With a growing need for science, technology, engineering and mathematics professionals, Penn State is fostering an interest in these fields among high school students through the Epidemiology Challenge, a program within the Department of Public Health Sciences at the College of Medicine.

Through a grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at the National Institutes of Health, Penn State’s Early Preparation and Inspiration for Careers in the Biomedical Sciences (EPIC) program’s Epi Challenge offers area high school students a look into the world of epidemiology, used in biomedical and public health research. At the same time, Penn State Hershey researchers are tracking the students’ interest, progress and aptitude for science careers.

“There’s a decrease in people pursuing these careers and majors,” said Andrea L. Stennett, Penn State coach for the Epi Challenge teams at Middletown Area High School.

EPIC is the product of a collaboration of experts in epidemiology, secondary education, and career development, representing Penn State, Montclair State University, the Pennsylvania Department of Education, and the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Educators and administrators at five area high schools have been instrumental in shaping the EPIC program, including Middletown, Cedar Cliff, Lower Dauphin, John Harris and Sci Tech.

According to the National Science Foundation, the country may face a crisis due to an eventual deficit of epidemiologists – specialists who study the causes and effects of public health issues.

Through the course of the Epi Challenge, teams of students from the five area high schools identify an important health-related topic, develop a hypothesis, create a research proposal, gather and analyze data, and draw conclusions regarding their study results.

 “It is important to engage all the members of the team,” said Sherrie LaPorta, Penn State coach for Lower Dauphin and Cedar Cliff High Schools.

Students will present their research progress reports and will receive feedback from a panel of experts as part of the Epi Challenge Research Symposium to be held at the College of Medicine this month.  Students will present their final results and conclusions at the upcoming Epi Challenge Gala celebration in June.

“The purpose is to give students a project-based learning experience where they investigate something that they’re interested in,” Stennett said.

“Epidemiology is a set of tools you can use to study very specific things but you can also use it broadly,” said Robin Taylor Wilson, Ph.D., associate professor of public health sciences and principal investigator for the EPIC Project.  “It has the capacity to engage students who have an interest in social sciences, biology, or neurosciences as well as those with interest in a broad array of the sciences.”

In addition to introducing students to epidemiology, the program is designed to increase scientific literacy, improve critical thinking, and provides students with tools to help them make career decisions.

Students were surveyed in the ninth grade and completed a science literacy and career assessment to determine their skills and interests. Students chosen for the program then participated in a week-long summer intensive training in epidemiology and then continued the challenge in fall of 2014 at the start of their 10th grade year.

The students were put into teams within each school and asked to come up with their topic and hypothesis.

Topics range from multitasking and social media to sports and single parent households.

One group is concentrating on how screen time affects sleep.

“We are studying the effects of screen time– anything like an iPad, a cellphone or a computer– on sleep,” said Erin Templeton, student participant on team Raider Epidemic. “We want to see people with low sleep and high screen time. That’s what we’re looking for.”

The group chose the topic because they themselves are often guilty of overusing technology.

Team member Ryan Favinger admitted to too much screen time.

“I was on phone until two or three in the morning,” he said.

Their surveys, which will be distributed to 100 students, will ask sleep and wake times, gender, grade, extracurricular activities that could affect bedtime and the amount of screen time.

Their goal is to find out how a certain amount of screen time can affect a certain number of hours of sleep. Templeton hopes their study will bring awareness to teens that a lot of screen time before bed is not healthy.

The group also said that they appreciate the other skills they are exercising including organization, teamwork, and learning through research.

In their 11th and 12th grade years, participants will again complete the science literacy and career assessment. This will let researchers see if the Epi Challenge had a direct effect and to determine if introducing epidemiology in high school attracts students to the career.

There are currently no classes or electives for epidemiology in high schools. Students are not usually exposed to the concept of public health until college.

Middletown High School science teacher Terri O’Neil wondered if an epidemiology elective was an option for Middletown after she attended a week-long training for secondary educators in epidemiology at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Following the example of educators in New Jersey, Epi Days were born at the school, a one-day event devoted to the science.

At the same time, Wilson and her colleagues wondered if there was a way to introduce epidemiology to a wider array of students after judging a young scholars competition.

“Every year when we were at that competition, people would say this is great but we’re already getting the Science Olympiad students,” Wilson said. “We’re not really making a difference or an impact on those students who may not know about what they do in epidemiology. I was one of those people who never heard of epidemiology until I was in my master’s program.”

DSI Chocolatetown: Disease Scene Investigators (DSI) Workshop was the first outreach initiative. Over the past six years, more than 300 students and teachers from over 15 local high schools have participated, including O’Neil and her Middletown students.

With the success of the DSI workshops, Wilson and her peers thought pursuing a grant to research the influence of the Epi Challenge was the next step. Middletown was on board.

According to principal Michael Carnes, Middletown High School was part of the grant process from the onset because they wanted to expand on their Epi Days program.

“We’re open to trying things like this in Middletown because it’s the practicality behind their education and opening new doors,” Carnes said. “It fits into what we are trying to do — help kids crystallize what they want to do with their lives, introduce them to things they didn’t even know exist.”

While the official findings will come after the students are surveyed again, educators are already seeing results.

“I can tell from the students, they have elevated their scientific literacy just in conversation,” O’Neil said. “I have some of these students in other classes and I have noticed in comments they’ve made just in discussions that they have definitely increased their knowledge base.”

She has also noticed an improvement in presentation and social skills including their etiquette when communicating with the professionals they are working with.

“I’ve really seen a lot of benefit that they can apply outside in their other classes, outside the school, jobs, and down the road.”

The EPI Challenge has inspired Carnes and his staff to offer additional enrichment opportunities that cater to students’ interests during their school’s flex time. The classes are not graded but offer experiences not part of any other classes that are fun and hands on.

“The epi program has turned in to more than students just learning about epidemiology. Some have enjoyed new friendships and the fellowship of being part of a team,” said Audrey Plassio, science teacher at Cedar Cliff High School.

Her student, sophomore Victor Piscioneri, agrees.

“Epi Challenge has been an inspiring learning opportunity for me,” Piscioneri said. “It has taught me leadership and teamwork skills. It has also shown me the in depth parts in epidemiology and science.  I’m glad to be participating in it and hope to continue in epi challenge and on the science path it has put me on.”

For more information on the EPI Challenge, visit: http://www.pennstatehershey.org/web/cancer/epic.

By Jade Kelly Solovey

Entry filed under: Features, Research. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , .

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