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Connecting Biology, Service-Learning and Youth Awareness

By RATNA GUPTA, Ph.D

Ratna is an Assistant Professor, Science department at Our Lady of the Lake College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She holds a Ph.D degree in Biochemistry and teaches general biology I/II, general biology laboratory I/II, histology, genetics and biochemistry. Her goal is to teach using a mix of pedagogies like service-learning, team-based learning, problem-based learning, and simulations to keep students’ engaged, develop critical thinking and help them retain course material in the long run.

I do not think I will be able to tell this story without admitting that I am an absolute novice to service learning pedagogy and have no experience in any community service. It took more than a semester and numerous discussions with our service learning Director, Dr. Reddix for me to decide that I will try using this pedagogy in teaching general biology II course.

Biology II course is a ‘boring’ course, as per college students’ feedback. As an instructor, I obviously do not agree but the resilient question was how to make a course, which covers a wide range of organisms/topics including bacteria; viruses, protists; fungi, plant, animals, the origin of life, and evolution-engaging, interesting and learnable! Learning this course material involves quite a bit of memorization (that’s the nature of the material covered in this course). I am quite sure keeping students engaged in this type of course is a challenge!

I searched for a pedagogy, which could help our students retain the information, attain meaningful learning as well as relate to the material covered in this course. Thus, I decided to integrate Service-Learning (SL) into this course where students could learn the material and teach high school students, with the focus on how different organisms are involved in diseases process.

When I started designing the service learning project for undergraduate students, I was fully aware that it will truly engage the students, but I was not sure of its scope and its impact on either college students or high school students. Nonetheless, I know now that our SL project is worth sharing as it embraces one of the debilitating issues not only in United States but around the world- AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome), caused by HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) and other infectious diseases. The most nerve wracking concern about HIV infection/syndrome is that it does not differentiate between age, sex (male/female), race, religion. While HIV virus can be transmitted during sexual contact, one can also acquire this infection even during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding.

In United States, one in four new HIV infections is among youth ages 13 to 24. Every month 1,000 young people are infected with HIV and over 76,400 young people are currently living with HIV across the country. Thus, it is most imperative to educate youth age to prevent its transmission.

The SL project was designed to educate the high school students (age 12-16 y) about magnitude of infectious diseases ranging from common cold, food poisoning, strep throat, meningitis, vaginal candidiasis, athlete's foot, herpes to HIV/AIDS. The first step towards this is to understand the biology of organisms and mechanisms responsible for causing different infectious diseases.

This SL project focused on after-school programs, which emphasizes on growth, development and creating opportunities for school youth to develop their own personal knowledge and growth for future success. The project connected college biology students with high-school students while they learned the material and most importantly learned to work collectively.

I also arranged trips for high-school students to visit our campus to do experiments in our laboratory. The response was overwhelming. In my view, this opportunity was multi-faceted; allowed the high school students to do laboratory activities in a biological laboratory, which many school lack (for example use of microscope), provided them first-hand experience in observation of the materials of science, facilitated their learning as well as helped them to identify their career or educational goal. Some of the feedbacks from high school students were extremely positive, which substantiated my line of thought “I learned everything about medicine. Viruses can make you really really sick”, “I feel like I Learned a lot about the spread of the virus”, “I thought it was fun doing an experiment”.

The success of the whole service learning project ought to be divided in three phases. But before I get into the details, this SL project would not have been successful without our college students’ hard work, team work, sincerity, enthusiasm and willingness to participate in such a project to make a difference in the real world! The biology students were almost wonderful, after all they are freshmen! Nonetheless, they all worked diligently to carry out this project. Phase I involved educating the high school students that there are many different organisms that exist besides humans on this planet and there is a specific (scientific) way to classify and identify (taxonomy) them. Phase II involved learning the biology (structure, function and types) of bacteria, viruses and fungi and whether they are harmful, useful or both to humans. The last phase (phase III) involved the specific diseases/infections they may cause, how they cause such infections and how to prevent them?

One of the vital outcomes of this project was to educate the high school students about HIV/AIDS transmission as well as demonstrate the simplest way how to prevent it- Create awareness!

In this aspect of the project, we addressed the following questions: (a) types of viruses- their structure and organisms they infect (b) how do different viruses cause infection in humans (mechanism)? (c) what is the virus which causes HIV infection and weakens the body's immune system (your defense mechanism against microbial infections) so that it loses the ability to fight off microbial infection and illnesses? (d) How is HIV transmitted? (e) Does having HIV mean you will become sick and start showing the symptoms immediately? (e) How can we prevent the spread of HIV infection and other infectious diseases?

Our students lectured for 5-10 min, organized games (jeopardy), showed animated videos and offered candies for extra attention, together they used variety of tools to keep high school students focused and help in their learning. The comparison between pre- and post quizzes provided evidence of learning. In addition, a simple experiment was performed involving high school students, which clearly demonstrated the power and beauty of simple experiments and reiterated the fact that an enquiry based problem/issue/task is the best way to teach science. The experiment demonstrated the rate at which HIV virus may spread within a community.

In this experiment, all students mixed the liquid in their test tubes, except one student, with at least 4 other students by pouring the solution back and forth. The liquid mimicked their body fluids (semen, vaginal fluids, blood, breast milk, or even residual liquids in used needles).

At the end of the experiment, a reagent (weak acid) was dropped into the solution;
• If the solution turned “pink”, that demonstrated that the student is infected!
• The intensity of ‘pink’ color indicates the severity of infection
• If the solution stays clear, this demonstrated that the student was not infected!

A total of forty three percent high school students in class were found to be heavily infected in just 1 h. The student who did not mix his/her liquid was the only one who was uninfected. The results were eye opener and initiated a plethora of questions. The students were motivated and comments like “it was very fun and eye opening to make sure we know what our sexual partner(s) have”, “I felt somewhat good because I felt like I was a real scientist and I am glad that I turned out with no AIDS”, “I am glad that I am not most infected! I was scared for a second” were encouraging and indicated the importance of hands-on activities in students’ learning and specifically understanding about HIV infection.

The project was a huge success for both high school and college students. They were involved in learning different aspects about this deadly virus. They were able to learn how HIV virus initiates the infection at the cellular level (mechanism) and saw clearly how the infection get spread so quickly in the class room with varying intensity except the one who did not mix his/her liquid (body fluids) with any one. The benefits for my students’ (college) were multifaceted, they learned not only the course material but also to work in a team and apply the information to real-world problems.

The following comments were encouraging and a testimony of a successful project:

“Throughout this project, I have learned how to diligently work in groups and deal with unexpected problems. I especially learned how to professionally and courteously deal with frustrating situations. I am very grateful for the service-learning experience because it gave me an opportunity to learn skills and manners I can apply to my personal life and in the real world”

“While preparing this assignment I retained so much information that I did not know about viruses”.

“My knowledge of kingdom fungi drastically improved after researching for our project. Knowing enough to pass a test is far different than knowing enough to teach a class. I have a new appreciation for teachers. It is hard to make subjects interesting”.

“My goal was to change at least one student’s views about disease and transmission. If I could reach one student, then our job as service learning instructors would be successful”.

“In the beginning of this group service learning assignment, my group was not really all together. In fact it took us a while to actually get on the same page”.

“A young man truly believed that AIDS was acne, and this was extremely alarming”.

Conclusions
I am certain that this project helped my students increase their knowledge and retain the course material. Teaching what students learn is a great way to give back to the community. The project kept college as well as high school students actively engaged. College students wanted to be exceedingly prepared for any questions and high school were trying to ask as many questions as they can think. The type and number of questions asked by the high school demonstrated that the students were trying to really understand the biology of the virus, learn how it spreads and hopefully the different ‘myths’ they had about AIDS, got clarified in their minds! I sincerely hope that this is life-long learning experience that will help them in making sensible decisions in future.

Acknowledgements
I would like to express my sincere thanks to Boys and Girls Club of Greater Baton Rouge, Louisiana for partnering with OLOL college and support. I also would like to thank Dr. Reddix, Director OLOL college office of service learning for providing support and valuable insights leading to the successful completion of this project. I would like to extend my thanks to Dr. Phyllis Simpson for her constructive recommendations on this community service project.


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