Active Learning, Healthy Living

By Ruth Lynfield
From ASTC Dimensions
March/April 2009

It is appropriate that the March/April 2009 issue of ASTC Dimensions focuses on public health. April 7 is World Health Day, a day meant to raise the awareness of global health issues, and one that commemorates the founding of the World Health Organization in 1948. As an epidemiologist who is immersed in the work of public health daily, I view the term “public health” as the endeavor to ensure the good health of people and their communities by the prevention of disease and the promotion of healthy behaviors. This effort relies upon the cooperative work of scientists and health care providers to detect, describe, and measure issues of health consequence. Public health also requires the collaborative efforts of these specialists with policy makers and educators to translate data into sustained improvements for people and communities.

Education is paramount to the success of public health. However, to truly improve the health of our communities, the communication and acquisition of knowledge must be active and must inspire individuals to change a behavior or advocate for societal progress. It is tremendously difficult to change established health behaviors. Still, education received from multiple sources, particularly if there is an active component to this education, is an important instrument for change.

Science centers are particularly well suited for this type of active teaching and learning. As such, science centers throughout the world can play a major role in educating the public about health issues. Centers provide the opportunity for hands-on, in-depth exploration of a topic, including the chance for discussions with peers, family members, or teachers. Through the active learning that takes place in science centers, people can gain a more profound understanding of an issue than would be acquired from passive learning, such as reading a chapter in a textbook.

A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of serving as a project advisor for the exhibition Disease Detectives at the Science Museum of Minnesota (SMM), St. Paul. This exhibition puts the visitor in the role of evaluating a patient; exploring epidemiological clues; interpreting laboratory work; arriving at a diagnosis; and learning about the cause, transmission, and prevention of a number of important infectious diseases, such as Shiga toxin–producing E. coli, influenza, and malaria. My role was to advise on the medical and scientific content of the exhibition.

At the start, I had no concept of how SMM was going to take complex and somewhat dry information and translate it into a fun and engaging exhibition. It was quite astounding to experience the final product and observe the fun visitors had listening to lung sounds, using pulsed-field patterns to compare the molecular fingerprints of microbes, and evaluating the importance of protective measures from vectors such as mosquitoes. The hands-on activities made learning about disease and prevention much more appealing than the usual methods of public health education—such as informational brochures, web sites, or talks—increasing the likelihood that people would retain the information. Visitors spent time carefully going through the exhibition; reading the materials; and discussing them with family members, friends, and colleagues. Watching guests from ages 3 to 83, I had the strong sense that the exhibition provided fertile ground for budding epidemiologists, health care providers, scientists, and health advocates.

It is clear that science centers are key partners in the promotion of public health. Centers have the opportunity to promote an understanding of health issues by actively engaging one visitor at a time. To quote Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of
thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” As a public health professional and advocate, I am truly grateful for your work.

Ruth Lynfield is Minnesota’s state epidemiologist and medical director for infectious disease.

About the image: Visitors to Disease Detectives can touch oversized microbe models, including examples of viruses, bacteria, and parasites. Photo courtesy Science Museum of Minnesota