Press badges in hand, the fourth and fifth-grade reporters of Philadelphia’s local schools are taking today’s news coverage about health and science into their own communities.
As part of the educational program Healthy NewsWorks, young journalists from the Highland Park Healthy Hawk, the East Norriton Bulldog Bulletin, and other student-run newspapers interviewed clinicians and researchers about some of today’s most pressing health topics from gun violence to preventing sports injuries to city health programs for the uninsured. This year’s Healthy Newswork network of “health leaders” includes our own Paul Offit, MD, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and Senbagam Virudachalam, MD, pediatrician and PolicyLab faculty member.
Drs. Offit and Virudachalam each have their own chapter in Leading Healthy Changes in our Communities 2017, the sixth edition in a one-of-a-kind book series written entirely by students that aims to educate their peers, families, and neighborhoods about healthy living. The book launched at school events across the city earlier this year. Thumbing through its pages, you get a true sense of the inquisitive and intelligent approach the students have taken toward tricky health topics.
Dr. Offit’s chapter, entitled “Educating people about how vaccines save lives,” outlines his journey from being a 5-year-old in the hospital ward to how he came to develop the rotavirus vaccine and finally, his current mission to educate the media and public about the importance of vaccination.
“The students’ understanding of the subject of [vaccine education] was as good, frankly, as any journalist,” Dr. Offit said. “They asked me why I chose to do research, why I chose to research rotavirus in particular, if I always wanted to be a doctor, and even if I was part of the pharmaceutical industry.” (Pictured above is Ian Kaplan of the Highland Park Healthy Hawk Interviewing Dr. Offit.)
Meanwhile, Dr. Virudachalam’s chapter, titled “Investigating home cooking as a recipe for health,” narrates the story of her career in health, which begins with early inklings to help children and families when her family immigrated to the U.S. The chapter also delves into her development of the “Home Plate” study, a CHOP research project that gives parents cooking classes to help prevent child obesity.
Both CHOP researchers had a positive impact on helping the students develop savvy journalistic skills, according to Marian Uhlman, executive director and founder of Healthy NewsWorks.
"Our reporters learned a lot, gained confidence, and produced excellent stories because Dr. Offit and Dr. Virudachalam treated them as professional journalists,” Uhlman said. “Both physicians validated the student reporters' important role in providing health information to the community.”
Healthy NewsWorks has grown substantially since its initial launch in 2003: As of the 2015-2016 school year, the program included 300 students from 14 schools with newspapers distributed to more than 6,000 children and their families.
Dr. Offit’s involvement in Healthy NewsWorks began years before it had materialized. Having worked with Uhlman on several of her articles as a health journalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Dr. Offit was invited by Uhlman to speak to an elementary school class about his vaccine research and field questions. The resulting dynamic interaction between students and expert helped form the basis of what would later become Healthy NewsWorks, whose stated initiatives include “producing accurate, and relevant health publications and other types of media for their fellow students, families, and the wider school community.”
“There isn’t much out there for kids of this age, and this is why what Marian is doing is so important,” Dr. Offit said. “Now, more than ever, I think the truth is that there are facts in the world of science. Science isn’t politics or religion or philosophy. Gravity is a fact. Evolution is a fact. Climate change is a fact. Vaccine safety is a fact. And watching kids sort through how one determines the truths in the science world is critical.”