This week the NZ Government announced 22 new and expanded initiatives to combat childhood obesity.
It’s good to see the epidemic of childhood overweight and obesity being recognised as something more than a personal weight problem. However, the diet and exercise regimens of these already overweight/obesity children are only part of the issue.
Research shows that the likelihood of a child developing obesity, and a raft of related diseases, starts early in life – even before conception – and that the risk can be passed down the generations. The health and wellbeing of the parents (yes parents, not just the mother) and grandparents provide a significant degree of ‘fetal programming’ of the child’s metabolism and growth, and effects their likelihood of developing risk factors for occurrence of non-communicable diseases later in life; diseases such as, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, some cancers and even possibly Alzheimer disease.
This new plan is largely focused on those children that are already obese.
Notably absent is a strategy to work with the education sector to integrate an exploration of the issues around health, nutrition and exercise in young, school-going future parents – irrespective of their BMI status – using the many existing opportunities for this within the school curriculum. Childhood overweight/obesity is an increasing issue, the more that can be done to reduce the number of children likely to develop obesity in the future will help to reduce the burden of obesity and associated issues at an individual, community and national level.
It is only with education and change across the whole community – not just those children who are currently identified as obese – that we will be able to turn the tide on childhood obesity.
I teach and research in a university zoology department. When I first took up my job over 20 years ago, some of my students told me that they took zoology (or biology) because they would not have to “do any maths.” I found this attitude deeply shocking: in my view analysing biological phenomena in a quantitative manner gave insights into the beauty of biology that no other approach could match. Of course, I was biased; I had graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics before studying for my postgraduate qualifications in biology.
In the intervening two decades, the role of mathematics in biology, especially in biological research, has grown enormously. The long-standing use of statistical analysis of experimental data has, of course, become more sophisticated and new-fangled concepts such as Bayesian analysis have become commonplace and not just in the fields, like ecology, that always had a statistical bent. Perhaps even more fundamentally, many parts of pure mathematics – algebra and calculus – are now fully in the mainstream of biologically relevant mathematics. Many areas of biology in which mathematical tools and models were absent or marginally important now rely on mathematics and its application for their most central questions.
For example, one area in which I carry out research is phylogenetics, the study of evolutionary trees that show how different species (or groups of species) are related to each other, rather like family trees show how people are related. Back in the dark ages (the 1960s and before) evolutionary biologists drew their trees freehand, according to how they personally interpreted the data (usually derived from morphology or fossils). Today, such an approach is just not scientifically acceptable. Like thousands of scientists worldwide, I use DNA-sequences as the data to feed into various computer programs that carry out several analyses. For example, once the sequences from the different species are matched to each other correctly (“aligned”), we need to have a way of searching through the unbelievably gargantuan number of possible trees to find those (or the one) that are (or is) best supported by the data. No amount of intuition or even hand calculation could achieve this goal and, indeed, such approaches would waste most of the information we have in the sequence data. In order to make the best use of our data and draw the most accurate conclusions, we need these computer programs, which are built on rather sophisticated algebra and algorithms.
In the fields of medical research, too, things have changed. Recently I was involved in a study of the consequences of dietary restriction on lifespan. Many scientists have wondered if restricting calories can extend life expectancy, especially in humans, but the experimental data (on various animal models) was not very clear. Our study, led by Gravida Investigator, Shinichi Nakagawa, carried out what is called a meta-analysis, discovering that the effect is more pronounced in females and in model species (laboratory mice, drosophila flies, etc.). Meta-analysis feeds the results of previous studies into a combined analysis to derive an overall conclusion. Meta-analytic results are often far more powerful than single studies because they make use of so much data, but they rely on some careful mathematics, to ensure that all the factors in different experiments are properly accounted for.
Of course, the fact that mathematics now pervades more and more of biology does not mean that we all have to become mathematicians any more than car drivers must become mechanics. But as biologists, we do need to be familiar with the basics of mathematical approaches and we must learn how to drive the mathematical programs that analyse our data. And researchers above all must have some facility for talking to mathematicians, who are the very people who will be inventing the next generation of mathematical tools to analyse the increasingly vast amounts of biological data being generated in laboratories around the world.
So, as biologists, we all need some quantitative skills, and it is never too early to think about developing those skills. High-school pupils contemplating a career in biology should ensure they take mathematics as far as possible. Those students wanting to go on to study biology at university should try to take both the statistics and calculus flavours. Such careful planning will open all sorts of options about the direction of study and possible jobs. But perhaps at least as satisfying will be a greater understanding of the majestic complexity inherent in so much of modern biology.
Ian Shaw is the Director of Biochemistry and Professor of Toxicology at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. He is also a Principal Investigator of Gravida: National Centre for Growth & Development. His main research focus is the impact of environmental contaminants on humans. You might even remember seeing him in the media talking about bis-phenol A in plastic bottles. Professor Shaw won the NZ Association of Scientists Communicator Award in 2009, has written books, and is fairly frequently popping up on the television.
The Toxicology of DOHaD
The International Society for Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) is, as its name explains, concerned with the origins of health and disease in a developmental context. How do insults (by this I mean bad things that happen, e.g. the effects of mum smoking) during a child’s - or an animal’s for that matter – early stages in the womb affect its development and how do these developmental effects impact on its health later in life? These are huge questions with astoundingly inadequate answers, but our understanding is increasing…
Life begins in a moment of passion when a sperm meet an egg and fertilises it. From that point on the new being develops by a long and complex series of cell divisions that lead to organs and body anatomy; eventually a fully formed replica of its parents emerges at birth. Amazing! But think about the process more carefully; it all starts with a fertilised ovum – a single cell – that by myriad divisions forms an animal or a human. If that first cell was damaged this would probably lead to all of the cells derived from it also being damaged. If such damage was severe, it is likely that the cell would die or its division products would not be viable – this is an important safeguard against horrendous deformity. However, if the damage was seemingly slight – like a change in DNA for example – viable cells could be formed following division…each containing the replicated, damaged DNA. If this damaged DNA coded for a key protein the offspring would be biochemically compromised in some way. This might never come to light, but, on the other hand, it might lead to a change which compromises the adult’s life. This is where Toxicology and DOHaD meet.
The extreme example above relates to a very early effect on the developing embryo – the earlier the effect the greater the potential impact because the affected few cells will form the multitude of cells that make up the offspring’s body. Later effects will focus on the cells that are developing at the time of the impact. For example, the limbs begin to form in the middle of trimester 1 (about 2 months in a human pregnancy); so, if the embryo is impacted then it might affect the development of the limbs. This happened during the Thalidomide disaster in the late 1950s and early 1960s when many children were born with horrendous limb deformities which were traced back to their mothers being prescribed Thalidomide for morning sickness during the early stages of pregnancy. Thalidomide is now known to interfere with limb bud development and so if the embryo was exposed during mid-trimester 1 the resulting child was likely to have limb deformities. This illustrates well that if a particular toxic chemical exposure occurs during pregnancy it could adversely affect the cells actively dividing at the time of exposure. Trimester 1 exposures are by far the worst because this is a time of great embryological/fetal development.
Alcohol is another example of developmental toxin. Mothers who drink alcohol during pregnancy put their child at risk of fetal alcohol syndrome because of the effects of ethanol on cell development - particularly nerve cell development. This can lead, amongst many other things, to brain development abnormalities with all their serious ramifications for the child as it grows up and the adult that it grows into.
Thalidomide and alcohol are examples of well-established chemicals that interfere with growth and development and lead to impacts on the child’s health. They are termed teratogens (from the Greek, ‘teratos’ meaning monster). Their effects are obvious and devastating and easily avoidable by not exposing pregnant women to alcohol or Thalidomide. Easy!
As we explore developmental effects more and understand more, it is becoming clear that many every day exposures affect development and that these effects might have significant and complex impacts on later life. The seeds of adult health disorders can be set in the very early stages of pregnancy.
Diet during pregnancy is a key determinant of a child’s health, and, indeed the health of the adult it grows into. You are what your mother ate! If pregnant rats from non-obese family lines are fed large amounts of fat, their pups are more likely to become obese or over weight in later life. So, even if there is not a genetic determinant of obesity, the mother’s fat intake can determine whether her offspring become fat. With obesity comes an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Therefore, too much fat in a pregnant mum’s diet might increase her child’s risk of contracting type 2 diabetes in later life. This research is in its infancy, but points to a whole new concept of health assurance – making sure the developing child in the womb is not exposed to chemicals (including normal dietary chemicals like fat) that might initiate a developmental change that might not manifest until much later in life. Watch this space…it’s getting exciting!
And it’s not only Mums that need to watch their exposures; it has been suggested that fathers’ exposures to chemicals that might affect their sperm can result in changes in their offspring, even if the exposure was a long time before the moment of passion that led to fertilisation. The male children of soldiers exposed to an insecticide (dibutyl phthalate (DBP)) have an increased incidence of genital developmental malformations. It has been suggested that this is because DBP affects the genes that code for key enzymes in the synthesis of the male hormone, testosterone. This means that the developing male embryo might not get the right signals for genital development. While these ideas are just the beginning of a new line of thinking – and a rather controversial line of thinking – it might be wise not to dismiss them just yet!
Kim JH & Scialli R (2011) Thalidomide: The tragedy of birth defect and the effective treatment of disease. Toxicological Sciences 122(1), 1-6
Howie GJ et al (2009) Maternal nutrition history predicts obesity in adult offspring independent of postnatal diet. Journal of Physiology 587(4), 905-915
Carran M & Shaw IC (2012) New Zealand Malayan war veterans’ exposure to dibutylphthalate is associated with an increased incidence of cryptorchidism, hypospadias and breast cancer in their children. New Zealand Medical Journal 125(1358), 52-63
Elwood M & Borman B (2012) Increases in disease in Malayan war veterans’ may be misleading. New Zealand Medical Journal 125(1367), Letter
Context plays a significant role in teaching and learning. Setting learning within contexts that are meaningful to students can support improved engagement and achievement, as well as the development of inter-related capabilities across multiple curriculum areas. These capabilities should facilitate engagement in active citizenship now and in the future.
Context-embedded learning is centred in exploration of contexts that are meaningful to students, the community and society. E.g. Students may learn about concepts and develop capabilities relating to multiple curriculum areas by exploring contexts such as sustainable energy supply, food security, the non-communicable disease epidemic, climate change, waste management, the use of nanotechnologies, road traffic behaviours, fisheries, natural disaster planning, immunisation, etc.
Context embedded learning should support students to use knowledge and skills in decision making that is set within a social context, therefore is associated with consideration of attitudes and values. It should challenge students to ask questions and to develop actions in response to their learning. Through this process of exploration students are supported to develop understanding of the nature and process of research, as well as relevant concepts and capabilities which traditionally are associated with individual subject areas such as English, Science, Social Studies, Health/PE, Mathematics, Languages, Arts, Technology etc.
We note that this is very close to inquiry learning, however inquiry learning traditionally starts with a question posed by the students. We argue that students need to explore a context before they can actively drive the development of a question or refine a large question to enable a focussed inquiry. This is limiting. It means that the student is limited to shaping questions for which they have experience and knowledge. By exploring the context prior to developing the question, context-embedded learning allows the student-centred inquiry to be based within contexts of relevance for which the student may have no prior knowledge or experience and acknowledges that in order to examine an issue, considerable time is required to explore the issue.
The model can be utlised in a single learning area, or across the curriculum. The LENScience Diabetes: An Issue for My Community learning resources usesthis model within the setting of science learning.
However the learning module "Me, Myself, My Environment: Nutrition" developed by LENScience and a group of Auckland schools in 2009, has been successfully integrated across multiple learning areas, particularly in Year 7-8 classrooms.
Tereora College teaching teams are currently utlising this model to develop a cross-curricular learning programme exploring the issue of sustainable energy use in homes and families with Year 9 students. This is part of the Pacific Science for Health Literacy Project.
The learning module will be piloted in Term 2 this year, reviewed, and published for other schools to explore in 2015. The model below shows the intended process for these learning modules.
The LENScience learning programmes are designed to support the development of scientific literacy. But what exactly do we mean by this. I met with the Science Department of Fairfield College in Hamilton, New Zealand last month and we engaged in discussion about the difference between scientific literacy and literacy for science.
The Fairfield team have a very active and engaging science programme within their school exploring issues of significance to the students and their community. They have become a partner research school with LENScience and are interested in how science learning experiences can support links between school and community, while also supporting student engagement and achievement appropriate to 21st century communities.
Many definitions are attributed to scientific literacy and we explored two statements, one defining and one describing scientific literacy.
We agreed that we wanted science learning experiences in schools to support young people to develop competencies that would enable them to use scientific knowledge, skills and understanding in decision-making about issues relevant to the students, their families, communities and society. Personally I think that the New Zealand Curriculum statement puts this simply, but strongly, and acknowledges the importance of culture in the consideration of when and how scientific knowledge is used by individuals, communities and society. If students develop the competencies described in this statement, and have the opportunity to engage with relevant science knowledge, they will have the opportunity to participate in informed decision-making about when and how they use scientific knowledge in their own lives, and will contribute similarly to community and societal decision-making. Issues of access to resource to enable those decisions will impact on whether they are realised or not.
The OECD PISA programme, in looking at what should be measured when assessing scientific literacy is very helpful in highlighting the importance of the development of understanding of a combination of factors including:
I have represented this concept diagrammatically, helping to highlight the matrix of competencies required to allow students to use scientific evidence in decision-making. If the learning experiences offered in schools support the development of each of these aspects of scientific literacy, they will also support students to explore and develop their own attitudes towards science and its place in society.
The LENScience learning modules are designed to support development of each of these aspects of scientific literacy using contexts that support students to visualise and explore the links between science, their personal and family lives, their communities and society. However, it is not possible to develop scientific literacy capability without the support of many other skills and competencies associated with literacy, numeracy, ethics, thinking and decision-making. This is where the team at Fairfield engaged in a robust discussion around the challenges associated with development of the literacy (and numeracy) skills required to enable students to access science learning experiences.
Literacy for science describes the literacy skills required to engage with science as it is presented in school, in the media, or from within the science community itself. This is different to scientific literacy, but is absolutely required to enable scientific literacy. As teachers we need to proactively develop learning experiences that support both these goals, as well as to engage in cross-curricular linkage to support students to actively transfer the literacy and numeracy skills that they develop in other subject areas into their science learning.
Even if our students develop scientific literacy capabilities and the associated literacy and numeracy skills required to engage in evidence-based decision, making, access to current science knowledge for communities and society is a significant issue, and one that a group of Year 12 students raised with me last week. They were reflecting that when they were engaged with the LENScience Diabetes: An Issue for My Community programme in Year 11 they felt that they had access to relevant current scientific and health information to support their decision-making, but that this was generally lacking for their generation through the media. This is a challenge that I have agreed to explore with the students, around half of whom are not taking science subjects any longer. I am interested to hear from them about how they think that their generation can be supported to engage with relevant scientific information.
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) The PISA 2003 Assessment Framework –Mathematics, Reading, Science, and Problem Solving Knowledge and Skills, OECD, Paris, France, 2003
Ministry of Education (MoE) The New Zealand Curriculum for English-medium teaching and learning in years 1-13. Wellington: Learning Media, 2007.
Further Reading: Bay JL (2013) Let’s talk about scientific literacy. New Zealand Science Teacher 132, 50-53
Kia ora, ngā mihi maioha kia a koutou katoa. Hello and welcome to LENScience Community, the latest development in our communication basket!
LENScience developed our first interactive online presence back in 2008. The LENS wiki was a great way to get interactive e-learning off the ground and formed the hub of our LENScience Connect community from 2008-2011. With fantastic support from Kordia, VoltTV, Gravida and the University of Auckland ITS team the wiki and the satellite TV platform allowed us to talk to you, and you to talk to us, and to each other.
That programme was a raging success. We had over 2000 Year 13 students participating each year from 2009 – 2011. We used the platform for one-off events for 11-16 year olds, interactive teacher PLD programmes and of course we won awards - from TUANZ and the Tertiary ITS Community. There are almost 30 interactive programmes in our archive from that period. We know that many of you are still using those resources with your classes. Our science communities loved the opportunity to interact with you and your students.
However – some of you told us that the wiki was a bit too accessible by the world! You wanted a private space; a space where you could throw around ideas without worrying that the entire world could see what you and in particular your students were talking about. We also heard that the wiki was not exactly user-friendly. It was great for the techies – but a bit complicated for most of us to use!
Well we have listened, and here it is, the LENScience Community. This is the exciting beginning of our new blended e-learning space. We plan to see this grow into something that captures all the good parts of the original LENScience Connect community – with much more. You might say LENScience Connect is undergoing steroid treatment!
The front page and blogs are public – the whole world can have a look and see who we are and what we are about. BUT, to come inside or contribute to a group you will need to be a member. Members are educators, scientists, LENScience supporters and in special places within the community, school students. Different people will have access to different groups. We can set up groups that are for instance for clusters of teachers and scientists developing or using a programme. We will be able to set up private groups for your classes (but please let us walk before we run!).
You will also have your own page as a member. This is your space. You can share it with a mentor, open it to your department, the whole community, or just keep it to yourself.
Initially we will target educators, school technicians and scientists. We will be setting up groups for our Professional Learning and Development programmes, and specific interest groups – such as teachers engaging in the Year 11 Diabetes in My Community programme.
Back in 2009 when I talked to more than 500 science teachers throughout New Zealand, I found two that were using Web2.0 tools in their teaching! Wow – how fast things have changed. I am sure if I asked now how many of you are using social media the answer would be almost everyone – AND in our classrooms.
In 2013 we developed and piloted this social network which is built using a NINNG platform. A huge thank you to the students, staff and scientists from Aorere College, James Cook High School, Southern Cross Campus, St Cuthbert's College, Tamaki College and the University of Auckland's Centre for Brain Research who helped test and develop the site.
Welcome to the LENScience Community. The journey is just beginning………………
Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa.
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