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NIH renews funding for ‘Positively Aging' public schools program (9-12-00)

To most young people, anyone older than 18 is “over the hill.” Teens almost never think of the prospect of growing old, and it is little use trying to convince them that what they do today will affect them tomorrow.

That’s where the “Positively Aging®” curriculum pitches in to point out that aging is a universal process affecting everyone. This program, coordinated by the Aging Research and Education Center (AREC) at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, recently attained a second Science Education Partnership Award—$750,000 for the next three years—from the National Center for Research Resources, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Two other NIH components, the National Institute for Dental and Craniofacial Research and the National Institute on Aging, are grant co-sponsors. Positively Aging has brought expertise from the AREC to students in 15 middle schools in San Antonio.

“Compared to other investigator-initiated federal grants, our grant is relatively small. Our data, however, demonstrate our program’s effectiveness in teaching teachers how to incorporate aging as part of their curricula. The receipt of the second grant is in recognition of the work accomplished during the first cycle,” said Michael Lichtenstein, M.D., Positively Aging’s principal investigator and professor in the Health Science Center’s Department of Medicine.

“Positively Aging activities, such as having students draw pictures of what they think a typical older person looks like, can move children to a more positive and affirming view of aging. In our evaluation study, students in the school that used our teaching materials were more than twice as likely to draw images of active, socially engaged elders, compared to the school that did not use the materials. In the control school, students drew more pictures of frail, dependent, nursing home-bound elders.”

Though the emphasis is to have an impact on today’s youth and their view of aging, Positively Aging’s interdisciplinary lesson plans infuse aging into science, math, language arts, social studies, history, reading and physical education. A central goal is to use examples from gerontology to teach essential curricular elements.

During the first Science Education Partnership Award, the program team focused on evaluation of materials. During the second grant, plans call for controlled trial testing of different dissemination methods in four San Antonio middle schools.

Why use gerontology as a basis for educational materials? “There are many similarities between middle school students and the elderly,” said former seventh-grade teacher Linda Pruski, Positively Aging’s educational development specialist. “Young people are looking to separate from their families—to be independent. The older individuals are trying to hang on to their independence. Middle school students are looking forward to learning how to drive, while the elderly want to keep driving. We have always felt that these two groups of people are treated by society in similar ways—there’s a balance between supporting individual autonomy and promoting safety.”

Pruski and teacher helpers recently wrapped up a summer seminar that instructed teachers how to use the Positively Aging materials in their classrooms. Thirty teachers learned about nutrition and diet, the cultural differences pertaining to growing older, theories of aging, intergenerational friendships, family trees, the brain, Alzheimer’s disease, vision and hearing problems, diabetes, osteoporosis and other topics. Numerous interactive activities, part of the Positively Aging materials, stimulated the teachers’ creative and critical thinking processes.

Prior to the first Science Education Partnership Award, the AREC relied on private donations to support Positively Aging. Grants were obtained from the Scott Petty Family Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Harold Herndon, Mr. and Mrs. George C. Hixon, the SBC Foundation, the San Antonio Area Foundation, Genentech and Kaufman Broad. The SBC Foundation gave $15,000 to make the Positively Aging program bilingual and allow it to expand to more middle schools. In 1997, the NIH awarded the AREC a three-year, $714,000 Science Education Partnership Award to continue the program.

Contact: Will Sansom or Fernando Serna