Professor brings research to school

Dr. Scott Rawls hopes to teach students the effects of addiction by using live animals.

A program that teaches children the adverse effects of drug addiction by using live aquatic flatworms in elementary classrooms across the nation started locally—conceived in the mind of one Temple professor.

Dr. Scott Rawls, associate professor in the Center for Substance Abuse Research at the School of Medicine, got a $1 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to create a program called the Science Education Against Drug Abuse Partnership. The four-year grant funds the effort aimed at teaching students in grades 6-12 about how addictive substances like caffeine, sugar, alcohol and nicotine affect the brain.

He’s about a year into the research and says the program is different than most—it’s the first educational program to teach about drug addiction at an elementary level by using a live specimen, the aquatic flatworm.

“I’ve always been interested in developing some kind of science addiction curriculum for the K-12 level because there really isn’t any kind of curriculum like that that exists,” Rawls said. “It’s important to educate young people about science that surrounds drug addiction.”

Participating classrooms are given planarians, petri dishes and the addictive substances along with other educational material and instructions on how to properly complete the experiment. From there, students watch the difference between the flatworms in spring water and what happens in the addictive material to draw conclusions on what effect those same substances have on their own bodies. And though the experimented substances aren’t illegal, teachers use the examples of its addictive tendencies to further teach what kind of effects harder substances, like cocaine, have on people.

Along with Rawls, a former high school teacher, the program is also led by Dr. Rhea Miles, a science education expert and professor at East Carolina University, Kathleen Mooney, an assessment specialist at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and Dr. Sara Ward, a scientist at Temple. SEADAP is also founded on published research at Temple.

A group of 15 local classrooms participated last year with the guidance of Rawls and his team, and another 15 will participate this upcoming year—except this time, the classrooms will extend beyond Philadelphia and into places like Washington, D.C. and Rawls’ native North Carolina.

And as the program comes out of its first year, Rawls said he’s happy with the results, which are just coming in. He feels like the students really understood the purpose of the experiments and can observe changing attitudes. The goal, Rawls said, is to “teach them not to do it, not instruct.”

Whether the program will convince students against taking drugs in the future, there’s no way of knowing until years down the line. For now, Rawls is focusing on getting the word out and hopes to one day stand without funding.

Christina Lucera, a seventh-grade reading teacher at West Oak Lane Charter School in North Philadelphia, adopted the program in February after an interest from her 21-student classroom. The students were instructed to choose a subject that they felt affected their own neighborhoods most, from homelessness to drug addiction.

The class also demonstrated commitment by staying after school to participate—West Oak Lane Charter School doesn’t have any extracurriculars, Lucera said.

Lucera, whose expertise is not in science, said Rawls’ program made it more than easy to teach the students and adapt in a literary and sociological environment rather than a science classroom.

“The students were very, very into it,” Lucera said. “And using a live planarian, it was mind-blowing for them.”

She said she could see her students grabbing onto the lessons and connecting what was happening to the worms to real life situations.

“They learned it,” she said. “It wasn’t that I taught it, but that they learned it.”

Patricia Madej can be reached at or on Twitter @PatriciaMadej.

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