Environmental Health for Health Scientists

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill - School of Public Health
Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Instructor(s): Shea, Katherine M.
Subject area: Health / Medicine
Department: Public Health
Level: Graduate
Number of participants: 45 in class / 6-8 in small groups
Duration of exercise: 90 minutes
Cost/equipment needed: Minimal; copying costs only
Learning objective: Develop Group Skills, Provide Information
Teaching style: Group Activity, In-class Activity

Please note that the copyright for this course project is retained by the instructor.

Environmental Health Case Studies

We created small groups of 6-8 graduate students intentionally mixing disciplines (medicine, epi, health behavior health education, environmental science and engineering, health policy) and assigned them to specific environmental health topics which had local relevance. These included:
Each small group followed a didactic session on general environmental health issues related to the specifics of the case study. Each group was given starting materials which included background printed materials, web sites and local experts. Most also received basic objectives for each topic. The groups were given complete discretion on how their 90 minute class time was used and asked to meet the specific objectives as well as the general goals for the course. Most groups met before or after class 3-5 times to develop a plan and strategize presentation. Outside research was conducted by individuals as determined by their role in the group presentation. The three most successful groups presented on topics which were specific to North Carolina. I will describe each of these briefly.

NC Endangered Species:
This group began with a series of forced choices involving human and environmental valuation. Then the class was divided into small groups, assigned a situation specific to an endangered NC species and asked to develop a skit demonstrating the clash of views and values. Each situation was supported by factual information on the various issues related to the generation of the endangerment, the social and economic forces which applied to each species and the potential responses to the political mandate to protect the species. The class cooperated fully and acted out the issues in a way that stimulated much thought and discussion. The insights gained from both the forced choice and the skits were made quite vivid in ways that the straight, lecture format could not have touched. The success of this small group rested on excellent research, careful planning and active mentoring by the presenting group to support the participation of the rest of the class.

Hog Farms:
This group staged a town meeting in which a hog producer petitioned the town for control over public lands which were meant to be a town park to start a hog farm. The small group members each had a stakeholder part and presented formal arguments to the "mayor". Each member of the class was assigned a role and asked to participate in the public comment part of the town meeting. The presenting group researched each part (political, economic, health, environment) well and forcefully argued their points of view throughout. Class members also assumed their assigned roles (neighbor, high school science teacher, unemployed would-be hog farm worker, mother of small child with polluted well water, etc.) enthusiastically. This was successful because it is an active and very visible political/environmental issue in NC and local newspapers and reporters provided great resources for the groups' research. It was also made fun by clever audiovisual aides (like political buttons, campaign posters, and great satirical names of the council members and presenters).

Wake County Nuclear Waste Siting:
This group took half the time to present accurate background information on nuclear waste, siting issues, the political background of the waste sites and some of the health issues. Then they staged a debate on a local TV talk show with an investigative reporter as MC to argue the various local points on the siting process. There was less audience participation, but this was a much more technical issue and the MC did a good job of playing the various experts and interested citizens off each other. Again this was useful because it is in the news here and is an issue that is destined to escalate with time.

Instructor comments:

  • What products/outcomes/goals were anticipated? Which were accomplished?
    We hoped to illustrate the complexity of environmental health problems and to encourage students to begin to find the environmental strands in their chosen fields. By requiring each group to delve into the specifics of a particular environmental health issue, we hoped that they would both learn more about environmental sciences / health / politics / history / justice as well as appreciate that the solutions are not obvious and must be approached creatively, openly and with energy. I think we accomplished this.

  • What were the learning experiences and impressions for you and your students?
    The students and the lectures were ENTHUSIASTIC. The groups all worked hard to produce a good learning experience. Allowing these very mature and creative grad students complete license resulted in some very entertaining, engaging and penetrating sessions which broke up the monotony of straight didactics in a wonderful way.

    I was really proud of the students and impressed with the quality of their research and their creative presentation. Cooperative learning is totally appropriate for environmental studies because the issues are complex and interdisciplinary. We were lucky to have students from a number of quite different backgrounds to enrich and enliven the discussion. Higher education should strive to create more opportunities for dialogue and interaction among formal disciplines, especially around issues as complex as the environment and health.

    The students responded well to specific objectives and specific topics. For example, oxygenated fuels was not nearly as successful because it was not specifically NC and no particular health outcome was obvious. Students also felt strongly that the groups that went early in the course were at a disadvantage because they had less time to prepare. Students were quite grateful for "starter materials" but none of the groups limited themselves to these. Many groups actually added materials for future courses.

  • Provide any suggestions/recommendations for other instructors using this activity.
    Try it but let the students have their heads. The less proscriptive, the more interesting the product and the more the students will learn. ENJOY!

    This document was last modified on 06/14/2000 03:07:46 PM

    This resource was acquired by CEEM (Consortium for Environmental Education in Medicine), a program of Second Nature, under the auspices of a NIEHS grant to gather and disseminate environmental health educational resources over the internet in order to help medical and allied health sciences faculty identify, locate and use resources for incorporating environment and health perspectives into their curricula. CEEM has authorized the use of these materials on this website for archival purposes. Please note that the copyright for this material is retained by the instructor and/or contributing institution.