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Geography of Disease

Global health

Project summary

This project – officially called ‘Reasoning with biomedical data: understanding risk’ – was designed to engage students (aged 12-14 years) with ideas about the spread of disease and risk. Funded by the Wellcome Trust, the GA and Durham University worked with teachers from Maths and Geography departments in 2008-9 to explore ways to contribute to the development of spatially aware, informed, numerate citizens through developing a greater understanding and application of a range of complex higher order skills.

Understanding and communicating with biomedical data (particularly the risks associated with the spread of disease) is increasingly an urgent component of informed citizenship. Often in school, real-world issues are simplified for pedagogic purposes, usually reducing processes to two variable problems with strong assumptions about causal relationships. However, this not so much simplifies as destroys the authenticity of the material. It is exactly this failing that this project tried to overcome. The focus of the project was on the risk associated with the spread of disease.

Project activities and achievements

The project addressed the following points:

  • To what extent can pupils deal with greater complexity in data if they have the appropriate visualisation tools and support?
  • Can students better understand critical issues facing themselves and the world if they can reason confidently with numerical data?

In June 2008, an article in the Independent newspaper carried a warning from the Health Protection Agency (HPA) that measles had become endemic in Britain. The article cautioned that ‘the number of unvaccinated children was now large enough to sustain the “continuous spread” of the potentially lethal virus in the community’. But what has measles got to do with geography? As part of this project, Aston comprehensive school developed a scheme of work that focused on the global spread of measles, developing key geographical skills in the process (view this scheme of work). This, along with the other schemes of work created in the project, demonstrated the importance of geography for properly understanding disease.

The project acknowledged how in a globalised world the spread of infectious diseases ignores boundaries and potentially affects us all. The education and promotion of healthy citizens who make informed decisions to manage their own well being is an essential first step to reducing the ever increasing rise in infections. It showed how geography helps us to explore the distribution and spread of disease, risk taking behaviours, prejudice and lack of understanding of issues such as appropriate methods of control at local, national and international scales. The project also demonstrated how thinking geographically encourages us to explore how we are connected personally and in our communities to wider global issues and examine the responsibilities we and young people have to engage in considered action for change.

Resources such as lesson plans, activities and presentations are available from the three schools that were involved with the project.

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