Johnny Valdez, 13, bumps into his desk. He is learning about cataracts by wearing swim goggles stuffed with Saran wrap.
Classmate Amanda Bellinger is drawing a family tree and listing causes of death of her deceased relatives. "A lot of heart attacks," said Amanda, who will compose a report about the cardiovascular system.
And Abel De La Rosa can't write his name. He can barely even hold his pencil. His hand is bound in tape, and he is learning about arthritis.
Welcome to the seventh-grade life sciences class at Anson Jones Middle School in San Antonio. Here, 300 students are part of a unique teaching program called "Positively Aging," which was designed by their teachers and experts on aging from the Health Science Center.
The students learn about life sciences, for example, based on the biological process of aging. They interview older people and write biographies for English class. They learn that America soon will have more people over 65 than ever in history and the students then use the statistics in math class.
"Positively Aging is an opportunity for medical doctors and research scientists in gerontology to help young people focus on issues that will affect them throughout their lives," said Michael J. Lichtenstein, MD, associate professor of medicine and coordinator of the program.
The goals are simple: teach students to make crucial decisions that will extend and enhance their lives, and help them understand the needs and concerns of older people.
Every day, youngsters at Anson Jones make choices and face pressures much as any other teen-agers do. Gangs. Drugs. Violence. But Anson Jones has had more than its share of grief from them. Since 1993, six students or their relatives have been killed in gang-related violence. "Many of my students don't think they will live to be 18," said Linda Pruski, life sciences teacher and curriculum writer.
"With the violence, the students wonder why they should bother to do well in school, look to the future, plan for a job or even care about anything," Pruski said. "We needed a way to show our students that although this violence exists and it's terrible, the majority of them will live long and productive lives."
Positively Aging is designed to show the students that they have a future.
"We apply facts about aging to our everyday course work. This gives new dimensions to what the students are learning, and helps them understand more about their parents and grandparents. They also come to understand they will become old someday, and they need to make wise choices about how they live today," Pruski said.
The idea for Positively Aging originated in 1992, when Pruski was on a summer internship at the Health Science Center. The internships are designed to promote interest in science and acquaint schoolteachers with the aging-related activities in the schools of medicine and nursing.
Some of the nation's top physicians and research scientists in gerontology took an interest in writing a curriculum for middle school students. They came from the university's Aging Research and Education Center, which coordinates research and education programs on aging at the Health Science Center, and the Geriatric Research, Education and Clinical Center at Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital.
The group obtained initial support from Mr. and Mrs. Harold Herndon of San Antonio. Earlier this year, Positively Aging received more help from Genentech, Rayco Industries, the San Antonio Area Foundation, and the SBC Foundation, formerly the Southwestern Bell Foundation.
In 1994, Pruski and three other middle-school teachers took on roles as "translators" for the MDs and PhDs, said Helen A. Bertrand, PhD, associate professor of physiology. "We would supply the latest information and they would put it in a form that would work in the classroom so their students would understand and learn," Dr. Bertrand said.
Pruski said she is impressed by the help she and the other teachers receive. "The doctors are great. Their doors are always open. If I read something so thick with 'medicalese' that I can't understand it, they will sit down and explain the parts that I'm not getting," she said.
The teamwork and originality of ideas have impressed T. Franklin Williams, MD, former director of the National Institute on Aging. He met with the group last year as it began work. "The curriculum writing process, middle school teachers working hand in hand with university faculty in gerontology, is the first of its kind in the United States," said Dr. Williams, professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Rochester in New York.
Positively Aging is now being used by an interdisciplinary team of teachers -- five at the middle school and one at a high school. "We need to create a high school math and science program that is integrated with the middle school curriculum if we are going to expand our initial efforts into a national model," Dr. Lichtenstein said.
The curriculum does not replace any of education's basics. It works with them. For example, in:
Writing biographies of older people has been a fascinating experience for many students, Pruski said. "Kids found that their grandparents danced, were in bands, played musical instruments, traveled across the country hitchhiking, were in the civil rights movement. They found that their parents and grandparents were actually very strong advocates of freedom and were trying to make a better life for their family no matter where they came from."
The Positively Aging representatives from the Health Science Center are Dr. Bertrand and Dr. Lichtenstein, who also is a staff member of Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital. Others include Meghan B. Gerety, MD; Susan G. Hilsenbeck, PhD, a biostatistician; Linda M. McManus, PhD, a pathologist; and Randy Strong, PhD, a cellular biologist. They were assisted by Carolyn E. Marshall, PhD, of the Health Science Center's South Texas Geriatric Education Center, and Kenneth G. Andrews, PhD, an instructional development specialist with the Health Science Center.
"We are delighted that this curriculum gives students a perspective that they simply would never have considered at their age. This is the time in their life when they are opening new doors and looking out," Dr. Bertrand said. "And it is so much better to see what they could become in 60 years than this distorted vision that they won't live past their 18th birthday."
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