Monday, June 7, 2004

Making life better: The van of health

There is something undeniably attention-grabbing about being able to handle a 22-foot-long, life-size rayon large intestine. There is something even more jolting about studying breathing by watching the rise and fall of an actual pig's lung.

This, to a fourth-grader, is cool. More important to a fourth-grader's teacher, this is memorable.

Area elementary students have such learning opportunities when Discover Health's 38-foot van pulls up to their elementary school. An entire class piles onto the van, takes its place on tiered seating and gets a high-tech, hands-on lesson on the digestive system, brain, respiratory system or the entire body. During one lesson, flashing red and blue rope lighting over students' heads demonstrates blood flow through veins and arteries. In another, students can watch the digestive process on a laser video screen.

Discover Health, a nonprofit agency, is seeking to improve students' knowledge about their bodies and then to teach them to take better care of themselves. After the glitzy van lesson, students move back to their classrooms to learn skills and activities that will help them change their eating and exercise habits, avoid disease, and resist the temptation to smoke or drink.

Discover Health began the traveling education program with a start-up grant from the Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati. Since 1998, it has reached 175 schools and more than 100,000 Greater Cincinnati students. In many cases, the program supplements meager health instruction in elementary schools. Some schools use federal reading grants or local foundation funds to pay for the program. Others pay the $5-per-pupil fee from their own funds.

American children face a growing number of health problems, including poor nutrition, lack of exercise and rising rates of diabetes and early heart disease. Education that focuses on skill-building and decision-making is a powerful step in helping children take more control of their own health.

This feature appears on Mondays. Is there someone or something you have encountered that makes life better in Greater Cincinnati? Send your suggestions to Ray Cooklis at rcooklis@enquirer.com

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