May 5, 2009
Source: Piedmont 2007

Hess, Jeremy
School of Public Health
Environmental & Occupational Health Department


Project Summary

I came to the Piedmont Project thinking that I would not have to stretch far to incorporate sustainability and ecological thinking into my public health course on Climate and Infectious Disease. In fact, the course had originally been developed by Christine Moe as through her prior work with the Piedmont Project, and we were just re-focusing the course to include more information on climate change.

Despite the easy entrée, integrating a focus on sustainability – particularly a focus on place – has been a challenge. The challenge came from the fact that much of the class focuses on the ecology of diseases in geographically distant, unfamiliar places; creating an educational exercise to help students experience how climate, infectious disease, and place interplay here in Georgia, where they’re learning, was the question.

I’ve tackled the issue in two ways. First, by modifying an existing exercise in the class on water quality. The exercise originally was an introduction to water quality assessment by taking a water sample from near home, plating the sample in the lab, and looking for fecal coliforms. We have broadened the exercise both geographically and temporally. I’ve encouraged the students to get samples from a place that they feel connected to (or would like to develop a connection to), or a place that has particular importance in the water cycle of Atlanta (and thus in the city’s sustainability). I’ve given them a list of parks and a general overview of the water intake and sewer discharge in Atlanta. We’re also asking them to take samples over several weeks to look at how precipitation or the lack thereof affects the number of coliforms in the sample. This gives them a better sense of how weather – as a surrogate, in this instance, for climate – affects disease ecology. I will be very curious to see how they engage the exercise and what we find.

The second way I introduced the issue was by devoting an entire class to West Nile Virus and its changing epidemiology. West Nile was not an endemic disease in North America until recently, and season and climate have very strong effects on disease incidence. Moreover, West Nile is a vector-borne zoonotic infection, with reservoirs in wild birds, so the climate effects on the ecology of mosquitoes and birds is important, as well. We will be looking at the spread of West Nile across the country and considering why this year was a particularly bad year for West Nile, and then correlating the disease’s emergence and inter-annual variability in North America with changes in climate and ecology.

Hopefully these two additions to the class will provide ample opportunities for students to relate a bit more deeply to place than they might have otherwise. I hope, too, that by grounding their inquiry in place, they will have opportunities to consider the connections between place and sustainability at a deeper level.

Course Syllabus attached

Download: Hess_2007.pdf (251.2 KB)

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