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Taking on obesity with science and education

Photo: Taking on obesity with science and education
We all know simply telling teenagers what’s good for them seldom gets through (and the same goes for adults). That’s why a unique science education programme developed in New Zealand is giving teenagers the knowledge and tools to figure out for themselves what’s good for them, and their communities, with exciting results.
More than 40,000 intermediate and secondary school students have been involved with LENScience since its 2006 inception at the Liggins Institute, part of the University of Auckland.

This year, founder and leader of the LENScience programme, Jacquie Bay, was recognised for her services to science and education with her appointment as a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2017 New Year Honours List.

She says she is humbled to receive the honour. “I see this as a reflection of the massive efforts of a whole team of people who have worked to bring science and education closer together.”
The LENScience programme involves schools and scientists working together to foster scientific literacy in students and translate scientific knowledge into community understanding. It enlists young people as partners and problem-solvers in addressing the health issues affecting them and their families.

In collaboration with the Liggins Institute, schools develop programmes to enable young people to explore the latest research evidence relating to the health issues that matter to their communities, such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Teenagers are then encouraged to consider evidence-based, positive actions that their generation can lead.

In May 2016, young Auckland woman Jasmine Crosbie, who had attended a LENScience course as a teenage mum, travelled to Geneva to deliver a hard-hitting speech on ending childhood obesity at a World Health Organisation event.

Ms Bay says the effects reach across generations. “There’s increasing evidence that parents’ diet and health even before conception has long-term consequences for the health of their future children, so empowering young people to improve their life-style behaviours and health will also improve their future children’s health and wellbeing.”

The LENScience programme first targeted intermediate and high school students in Auckland, extending to predominantly low decile schools and Māori and Pacific communities across the North Island. The programme has been emulated in the United Kingdom, and successfully extended to Tonga and the Cook Islands.

Four Pacific graduates have been attracted to postgraduate studies at the Institute, one of whom received a LENScience research scholarship at age 14. Professional development for teachers is a new focus for the LENScience team.

Ms Bay also leads research at the Institute into the role of science education collaborations in improving youth and adult health, and heads up a Worldwide Universities Network collaboration examining the role of schools in supporting non-communicable disease (NCD) risk reduction.

Liggins Institute director Professor Frank Bloomfield says he’s delighted with the recognition. “A key focus of the Institute is translating our research into reality through evidence-based, practical solutions that will have an impact on our communities,” he says.

“The LENScience programme gives young people the skills to do just that in the context of their own lives, their families and communities.”

Ms Bay was previously Head of Science at Diocesan School for Girls in Auckland and is a past president of the Biology Educators' Association of New Zealand.

“What’s really exciting is when the kids start telling you about the changes they’ve made in their everyday lives,” she says. “We have schools telling us they’ve seen an increase in the numbers of kids taking science, parents saying their kids are coming home and talking about science. It’s thrilling and encourages us to continue on this pathway.”


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