Pest control and chemical use in the home are not topics that get much play in K-12 science. Applied science is not a priority for Arkansas teachers, who are charged with imparting the fundamentals of the physical and biological sciences. But, to Alesia Ferguson, Ph.D., MPH, Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the UAMS Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health, these subjects are central to science literacy of all citizens and making wise choices for a healthy home environment. And, if taught in an engaging way, these topics can excite students about science, hone their critical thinking skills and serve as a platform for science fair projects – all of which help to promote and encourage more young scientists.
Three years ago, Ferguson, a Stanford-trained environmental engineer, made her case to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the agency agreed, awarding her $215,000 to support a two-year teacher education program in Arkansas on integrated pest management and chemical use reduction in the home. Integrated pest management is a holistic approach that advocates use of toxic pesticides only as a last resort.
In addition, teachers could train on innovative teaching strategies called Liberating Structures to enable them and their students to break out of stultifying classroom methods – I lecture, you memorize for a test – for deeper, more active learning. The program also included learning forums for parents and community members.
Dr. Ferguson and her team of graduate students created a robust package of online instructional materials that includes a 10-day Pest Management Chemical Reduction (PMCR) curriculum for middle and high school, teacher training materials, slides and videos and website links. It is all available for free and is also in Spanish. It is suitable for classroom and homeschool educators, students, parents, and the general public.
The curriculum exposes students to some chemistry basics, the routes in the body to chemical exposure, principles of a healthy and safe home, and the differences in health risk of particular pests and household chemicals. Classroom activities include small group projects and problem-solving, and interactive online learning, discussion and debate, video and art. There’s a hands-on lesson on making laundry detergent out of safe, common ingredients.
Dr. Ferguson reached out to colleagues at two of Arkansas’ 11 STEM Centers to help with teacher recruitment. The Centers affiliated with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR) and University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB) promoted the program to eight school districts that serve communities that are diverse in terms of race/ethnicity and income.
Children’s health and environmental exposures to harmful chemicals have long been research interests of Dr. Ferguson, which she has coupled with a passion for community education. Her past EPA-supported educational outreach programs have focused on prevention of health hazards associated with lead, radon, carbon monoxide, mold and asthma allergies in the home. She is not against chemicals and pesticides, she explains, just unwise use.
“I am not advocating no pesticides or chemicals,” Dr. Ferguson said. “It’s chemical use reduction we need to think about. We use so many. Kids have no concept that the chemicals around them can be harmful. It is important to promote safety about all of these products around the home – their use, storage and safer choices. These concepts have never been taught in the schools.”
The grant paid for teaching kits and stipends to 75 participating teachers from 45 schools in more than 20 cities and towns. It also paid for students’ science fair materials and entry fees, as well as stipends for 15 graduate students from UAMS, the Clinton School of Public Service and UALR. They provided teacher support and served as mentors to science fair aspirants. It also supported public forums, through which several hundred community members learned about PMCR concepts.
The original grant proposed allowed for one class per teacher to take part, but teachers teach multiple classes, and many wanted all their students involved. Unable to say no, Dr. Ferguson broadened the opportunity. In the end, more than a thousand students were exposed PMCR concepts, about 300 entered science fairs, and many won awards. Some were also winners at regional fairs. For some teachers and schools, it was their first time putting on a science fair or taking part in one.
Clarksville High School teacher Melisa Jennings is not new to science fairs, but she found Dr. Ferguson’s training and guidance valuable, especially in regard to helping students come up with project ideas that are “pertinent to today’s societies and cultures” and “not ‘too elementary.’”
“Dr. Ferguson gave me the inspiration to continue to push my students to perform as actual scientists and challenge them to find the answers to their experimental questions,” Ms. Jennings said. “I am continuing the science fair again this year, and my teaching strategies have changed dramatically this year due to what I learned through the program last year. I believe my students’ projects are going to be exceptionally better than years previous.”
Although the project has ended, it lives on through the many individuals impacted – teachers and students, as well as parents, whose children came home eager to share what they had learned about particularly toxic chemicals and safer alternatives. With that knowledge, many changed how they dealt with household pests or what cleaning, health and beauty, and home maintenance products they used.
“Several people contacted me to say that they no longer have to use a pest control company,” Dr. Ferguson said.
Pest Management Chemical Reduction (PMCR) curriculum