reBUild Program Connects Pennsylvania High School Students With Students in Ghana to Study Disease Outbreaks
by Sara LaJeunesse (June 2011)
It starts as a small pimple-like bump on the skin. Left untreated, the “Buruli ulcer” will slowly eat away at the skin, leaving behind a massive gaping wound. Through a Penn State program, called reBUild (Research and Education on Buruli Ulcer, Inundations, and Land Disturbance), K-12 students from the Penns Valley Area School District in central Pennsylvania will work with students from three schools in Ghana to study the infectious disease that plagues so many people in subtropical regions of Africa and South America.
“Little is known about what causes outbreaks of Buruli ulcer, but the outbreaks seem to be connected to environmental factors—land disturbances such as deforestation and mining, and stagnant water from flooding—and peoples’ interactions with their environment,” said Leah Bug, the assistant director of the Center for Science and the Schools (CSATS) at Penn State. “The reBUild program will enable students in Penns Valley and Ghana to work together to examine the factors that lead to disease outbreaks, which will inform our understanding of how diseases are transmitted and how they can be prevented.”
The program, funded by the National Science Foundation from 2009 to 2014, is a collaboration among university science researchers, science educators at CSATS, and K-12 teachers. Penn State Assistant Professor of Geography Petra Tschakert is the project’s principal investigator. Tschakert works with colleagues at universities located in both the United States and Ghana to understand causes for Buruli ulcer outbreaks.
CSATS was created in 2004 to facilitate mutually beneficial relationships between K-12 schools and Penn State science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) researchers and outreach professionals. CSATS collaborates with STEM researchers to develop outreach projects that build capacity for K-12 teachers to engage their students in inquiry-based activities that incorporate scientific discourse and practices.
While the Pennsylvania teachers and students learn about the Buruli ulcer disease and strategies being used by scientists in the research project, they also investigate West Nile virus and Lyme disease, infectious diseases that hit closer to home, and they share their findings with their Ghanaian partners via video clips, Web sites, and wikis—and vice versa. In addition, both groups develop materials to educate their own local communities about the diseases as well as aspects of the other country’s cultures. For example, in February, the students at Penns Valley High School organized a “Ghana Day” in which they presented all they had learned about the country to students at Penns Valley Elementary School. This fostered-learning approach allows high-school students the opportunity to transfer their learning to the younger students.
“The reBUild program has allowed my students to ‘do science’ rather than simply learn about science,” said Jacquelyn Wagner, a biology teacher and the science-department chair at Penns Valley High School. “By posing thought-provoking questions, analyzing data, using appropriate technologies (such as GIS), and sharing results with others, they are building the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century.”
As part of the program, Robert Nyande, headmaster at the Boa-Amponsem Secondary School in Dunkwa-on-Offin, Ghana, visited the Penns Valley schools in March. Nyande captivated the students with his stories of the educational system in Ghana, a typical day in the life of a school child, and the geography of Ghana. He also visited Penn State preservice science and mathematics classrooms, where he learned about U.S. science and math teacher-preparation programs.
Indeed, the reBUild program offers students a glimpse into the lives of others. “The program has made my students more globally aware of the world around them,” said Wagner. “And as students make connections with others around the world, it is more likely that they will care for our Earth and its global inhabitants no matter where they live. They begin to understand that even though we are different, we are the same.”
This summer, Tschakert and other team members will take the scientific aspect of the project a step further by equipping community members in Ghana who have the Buruli-ulcer disease with video equipment so they can document their daily activity spaces. “We want to know where they go, how much time they spend there, and how much exposure they have to various types of stagnant water bodies where the bacteria may thrive, as well as how they care for bites and cuts, since the bacteria may enter the body through such wounds,” said Tschakert, whose research generally focuses on the interactions between humans—especially those living at the margins of society—and their environment.
She adds, “This video-documenting activity will allow us to better understand the precise locations of people’s activities, and then correlate them with results from soil and water sampling efforts to determine risk exposure. Because the mode of transmission is still a mystery, Ghanaians sometimes link the disease to witchcraft, which can trigger a stigmatization among those affected. So our work will also provide a wonderful opportunity to help entire communities become more aware of the disease.”
In the fall, the CSATS education team will continue its work with Nyande and the educators at the sister schools in Dunkwa and Tarkwa, along with its Ghanaian research colleagues from the University of Mines and Technology, to augment the educational goals of the project. Annmarie Ward, director of CSATS, and Bug will share the reform-oriented teaching approach that is being implemented in the Penns Valley schools with Ghanaian teachers so that they may engage their students in similar inquiry-based experiences long after the project ends.
The education plan has been instrumental in helping teachers and students learn about the scientific processes and the complexities surrounding disease outbreak. Teachers, working alongside research scientists, are learning strategies and techniques, which they can replicate in the classroom and which also strengthen classroom science instruction.
For more information about the reBUild program, go to: http://csats.psu.edu/projects/currentprojects/rebuild.cfm