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Scientists Are Training Schoolchildren to Detect Health-Related BS

We’re all constantly bombarded with health advice, from advertisements to Facebook postings to warnings from Grandma. Unfortunately, much of that advice is unreliable, unproven, and downright harmful. It can be very hard to separate medical fact from fiction, but that’s exactly what scientists are teaching elementary-school kids in Uganda to do.

Andy Oxman is research director at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health. He’s been working in Uganda since 2012 on the Supporting the Use of Research Evidence (SURE) program, which aims to improve both access to health care and patients’ ability to make better-informed health decisions. The program brought Oxman into conversations with politicians, who struggled with the same fact-or-fiction issues as the rest of us. But educating them was an uphill battle.

"Working with policymakers made it clear most adults don’t have time to learn, and they have to unlearn a lot of stuff." But kids, he thought—kids might catch on pretty quickly, Oxman told Vox.

The best-known primer on evidence-based health education is a book called Testing Treatments (available for free here [PDF]). The book breaks down the basics of scientific literacy and teaches readers to cast a careful eye at health claims and medical research. “You don’t need to be a scientist to think critically and ask good questions,” co-author Iain Chalmers told Vox.

After the latest edition of the book came out in 2012, Oxman approached Chalmers with his big idea: to teach its contents to children. “You’re mad,” Chalmers said. But Oxman was serious. Why shouldn’t kids be given the tools to evaluate what they’re told?

Oxman and Chalmers enlisted other scientists from Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Norway, and the UK to help identify the most important lessons a health literacy program should teach when considering the value of different medical treatments. They arrived at a list of 32 concepts, highlighting the need to be wary of things like small clinical trials, dramatic results, and a bias toward newer or more expensive treatments.

Next, they collaborated with schoolteachers in Uganda to translate those concepts into lesson plans, a teacher guide, and workbooks and readings illustrated with cartoons.

Because evidence and data are kind of their thing, the researchers decided to test the program’s efficacy as they implemented it. They set up a randomized controlled trial (the gold standard for scientific studies) involving more than 15,000 fifth-graders. From June to September of one school year, half of the students trained in BS detection, while the others went about their education as usual.

When the school term ended, the researchers tested all the kids to see if they’d become savvier consumers of health information. They’re currently crunching the numbers, but expect to find that their program did the students some good.

"My hope," Oxman told Vox, "is that these resources get used in curricula in schools around the world, and that we end up with the children … who become science-literate citizens and who can participate in sensible discussion about policy and our health."

[h/t Vox]

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Tulane University Offers Free Semester to Students Affected by Hurricane Maria
Infrogmation, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

As Puerto Rico continues to assess the damage left by Hurricane Maria last month, one American institution is offering displaced residents some long-term hope. Tulane University in New Orleans is waiving next semester’s tuition fees for students enrolled at Puerto Rican colleges prior to the storm, Forbes reports.

From now until November 1, students whose studies were disrupted by Maria can apply for one of the limited spots still open for Tulane’s spring semester. And while guests won’t be required to pay Tulane's fees, they will still be asked to pay tuition to their home universities as Puerto Rico rebuilds. Students from other islands recovering from this year’s hurricane season, like St. Martin and the U.S. Virgin Islands, are also welcome to submit applications.

Tulane knows all too well the importance of community support in the wake of disaster. The campus was closed for all of the 2005 fall semester as New Orleans dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. During that time, schools around the world opened their doors to Tulane students who were displaced. The university wrote in a blog post, “It’s now our turn to pay it forward and assist students in need.”

Students looking to study as guests at Tulane this spring can fill out this form to apply.

[h/t Forbes]

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Pablo, a Groundbreaking New BBC Series, Teaches Kids About Autism
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Autism spectrum disorder affects one in 68 kids in the U.S., but there’s still a lot of confusion surrounding the nature of the condition and what it feels like to have it. As BuzzFeed reports, a new British children’s program aims to teach viewers about autism while showing kids on the spectrum characters and stories to which they can relate.

Pablo, which premiered on the BBC’s kids’ network CBeebies earlier this month, follows a 5-year-old boy as he navigates life with autism. The show uses two mediums: At the start of an episode, Pablo is played by a live actor and faces everyday scenarios, like feeling overstimulated by a noisy birthday party. When he’s working out the conflict in his head, Pablo is depicted as an animated doodle accompanied by animal friends like Noa the dinosaur and Llama the llama.

Each character illustrates a different facet of autism spectrum disorder: Noa loves problem-solving but has trouble reading facial expression, while Llama notices small details and likes repeating words she hears. On top of demonstrating the diversity of autism onscreen, the show depends on individuals with autism behind the scenes as well. Writers with autism contribute to the scripts and all of the characters are voiced by people with autism.

“It’s more than television,” the show’s creator Gráinne McGuinness said in a short documentary about the series. “It’s a movement that seeks to build awareness internationally about what it might be like to see the world from the perspective of someone with autism.”

Pablo can be watched in the UK on CBeebies or globally on the network's website.

[h/t BuzzFeed]

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