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NIH Record

A Celebration of Science
Health Science Curriculum Online Goes to School

By Kimberly C. Mitchell

A group of scientists, educators, administrators and students at one Montgomery County high school glimpsed a piece of the future in science and health education on Jan. 13. That's when the Health Science Curriculum Online (HSCO) made its official debut at Wheaton High School in Wheaton, Md. Invitees from both the science and education communities gathered to witness the grand opening of the program, an interactive computer-based learning tool that features stories about young people confronting personal health issues.

The HSCO, developed by the Office of Research on Women's Health and the Office of Science Education, is designed for students ages 12-18 and their teachers. It uses laboratory exercises, questions, career links and scenarios featuring young characters to teach students about different aspects of science, medicine and health. It also allows teachers to assess students' progress.

Gloria Seelman, instructional specialist at OSE, began work on the idea in 1996 after realizing that her office's goals coincided with those of ORWH. Both wanted to educate young people about minority health issues and recruit them into science and health careers using hands-on learning experiences. Seelman shaped the idea further by devising a program that would engage students' imaginations as it exposed them to the latest innovations in computer technology, all while meeting national standards in science and health education.

Gloria Seelman welcomes guests to the HSCO grand opening.

Development of the program spanned 2 years and began with Seelman and her staff gathering data for inclusion in the program's databases. HSCO's scenarios — fictitious stories in which young people learn how to deal with health issues affecting their lives — were designed to focus on three diseases: diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. An advisory group of scientists and educators from ethnically diverse groups helped guide the effort, contributing both scientific expertise and ethnic sensitivity. The program was piloted during the 1997-1998 academic year at three high schools: Eastern High School in Washington, D.C., Wheaton High and Cibola High School in Yuma, Arizona.

The program aims to bring current technology to students in a way that complements their learning process. "It's important to integrate technology into the classroom," said Dr. Frank Critton, principal at Wheaton High. "'Chalk and talk' is nice, but we also need interactive learning experiences for students that will enable them to learn at their own pace." Like the other two schools at which HSCO was piloted, Wheaton's population consists largely of minorities. Its student body is 33 percent Hispanic and 25 percent African-American, with the remainder consisting of students of Asian-American and European heritage.

Health teacher Candis Fratkin (standing, l) assists students with the program as (from l) Dr. Paul Vance, Joyce Rudick, Dr. Vivian Pinn and other guests look on.

HSCO was designed with these groups in mind. Members of these populations continue to be disproportionately affected by heart disease, cancer, diabetes and many other chronic diseases. They often lack access to the knowledge, resources and services that can help them take preventive steps and lower their risks for such diseases. HSCO tries to place science and health lessons into a cultural context. In addition to stories featuring characters of various ethnic origins, the curriculum also contains a glossary of medical terms defined in both Spanish and English, recipes for healthy dishes from different cultures, and a resource list of minority health programs, services and materials.

The Jan. 13 event began with a welcome and remarks by three people who have spearheaded science and education efforts both locally and nationwide: ORWH director Dr. Vivian Pinn, Dr. Paul Vance, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, and Dr. Bruce Fuchs, director, OSE.

Fuchs expressed confidence in the value of HSCO and pride in the educators who helped bring it to fruition. "We want students to think about their health history and about their family's health history. And we're going to make it fun as well, since no one likes to take their cod liver oil without a spoonful of sugar," he said. "I'm proud of our partnership with the Montgomery County schools. And you (MCPS administrators) should be proud of the teachers you have working for you."

Vance takes a close look at one student's work.

Students weren't shy about expressing their enthusiasm for the program. Alicia Caffi, a 10thgrader in Candis Fratkin's health class, said of the online format, "It's better because it's interactive. I can learn better by doing it than by sitting in class listening to a lecture."

Another 10th-grader, for whom English is a second language, commented that he found the program useful. "It's nice and informal and easy for someone like me to understand."

"This program will help students to become more informed consumers," said Joyce Rudick, director of programs and management at ORWH. "It will help them communicate with their families. They may become more aware of their own health risks and those of their family members, and gain a better understanding of how to prevent and control disease."

A student in Sandra Sundlof's general biology class already appears to have taken that lesson to heart. In a Channel 7 news segment documenting the event, Erin McGee said of the HSCO scenario on lung cancer, "I am a smoker, and this has definitely given me an opportunity to see the consequences more clearly. I'm definitely considering quitting. Quickly."

Dr. Frank Critton gives his closing remarks following the demonstration of HSCO.

The creators of the curriculum anticipate that it will be a boon among teachers as well because of its user-friendly design, which consists of a set of complete lesson plans that can be accessed easily on the computer. "The teachers just have to log in and enter their passwords online and they can access lab activities, exercises, evaluations, student responses, and, through links to other Web sites, a wealth of up-to-date scientific information," explained Dewey Brown, who teaches honors and advanced placement biology at Wheaton.

HSCO has already garnered attention in the academic community. Teachers at more than 20 schools in Maryland want it for their classrooms, and requests continue to pour in from around the country. The Maryland state department of education and a local university have also expressed interest. This widespread response has Seelman looking to the future. "I want to market the program across the country, and use it for teacher training sessions at education conferences," she said. To help familiarize teachers with the operation of the program, Seelman and Brown have developed a user's manual that will be sent to any teacher or other interested person who contacts OSE and requests a password.

The HSCO Web site can be found at For more information about the program, contact Seelman at 402-5223.

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