Post submitted by Dr Melanie Morris. Dr Morris visited St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School on 5 March to bring the world of Epidemiology to life for a class of Year 5 children.
I am a Research Fellow in the Cancer Survival Group, and I was asked to launch St Joseph’s annual science week with an interactive talk about epidemiology. I was keen to help the children understand what epidemiology is, and why it is important. I explained that epidemiologists look at the characteristics of who gets sick in order to work out what can be done to improve the health of populations. By understanding who gets sick, we can provide advice to people that hopefully stops them from getting ill in the first place.
I put together a presentation with lots of colourful pictures (including some with the popular ‘yuk’ factor!) to explain something about how epidemiologists connect a disease to its causes. I challenged the children with their own epidemiology conundrum: who mostly got sick from the epidemic shown in the diagram above, and what kind of illness do you think it might be? They saw the answer quickly, and we talked about how there are some things that might spread more easily between children (such as head lice or norovirus).
I found that the children were very engaged with the theme, and hands were shooting up in the air throughout. They were interested to learn that some non-communicable diseases such as lung cancer are linked to behaviour and develop over time, leading one child to ask, “Can children get cancer if they smoke, or is it only adults?” Talking about how hand-washing can prevent the spread of diseases, another absorbed the information that germs cannot be seen with the naked eye, and asked, “If I wash my hands but miss a germ, will I still get ill?” I worked to strike a balance between giving the children accurate information about healthy and unhealthy behaviours, while emphasising that we are lucky to live in a country where the risk of serious illness is relatively small.
For me, the most rewarding thing about the visit was seeing such high levels of interest and engagement among the children. I hope I had pitched my talk in a way that they understood, but that the information and discussion also expanded their ideas. The teacher had encouraged me to present information that was not too complex, but I found that the children were quite demanding and asked lots of questions about the prevalence of the diseases we discussed and who might get them.
I would really encourage others to consider volunteering in schools. Being able to explain what your job involves and why it is important in a straightforward yet interesting way is such a useful skill to develop. Teachers say that the children really benefit from understanding what non-classroom science involves, and who the people are who work in science and health, beyond medical doctors. In addition, I felt that they enjoyed having an open discussion about health where they could ask any question and express anxieties.
My tips for those visiting schools would be to focus on preparing an interactive session that allows students to share their views and give as much input as possible. Also make sure you check what technology is available in the classroom – and that it works!
For more information about volunteering in schools, contact Vickie Bazalgette at email@example.com