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Using science to improve health

Jul 18, 2017   |   by Susan Ryan-Vollmar   |   The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship

As an engineer, Andrew Allee looks at our world’s changing climate, booming global population and rapid technological innovation and sees a huge need for kids to embrace and advance in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. So it was natural for him to partner with Montshire Museum of Science to develop and implement a project introducing late-elementary school-aged kids to computer science and robotics through community outreach events and classes that gave them hands-on experience.

Allee, a student at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering, was blown away by the inventiveness his students displayed with the computer programming and coding skills he taught them. One student in Allee’s after school program had a robot in his clutches for just about 10 minutes before it was zooming and spinning around the classroom. In the next class, the student layered on new programming concepts that enabled his robot to communicate and react to other robots nearby. Another student had his robot playing a Mozart phrase after an hour of tinkering.

“These are the same programming concepts that some professors spend weeks communicating in their programming 101 courses, yet these kids pick up on them intuitively—almost like a young child learning a spoken language,” says Allee. “Equipping our young talent with these skills brings out exciting inventiveness!”

Allee welcomed the opportunity the Schweitzer Fellowship offered to engage with the Upper Valley community beyond the confines of the Dartmouth campus, and to “invest in the future” by educating young people.

“Interacting with these kids was a reminder of humankind’s tremendous talent for problem-solving and creativity, which gives me hope no matter how dire today’s political, environmental, and technological circumstances may seem,” Allee says. “It was a great joy to learn with and from my students and partners at the Montshire.”

Allee developed the program after encountering a few obstacles to executing his original plan to develop an all-ages education program to introduce low-income families to the principles of energy that undergird nutrition, home energy efficiency and alternative energy in order to help them to improve their health and quality of life.

“I wanted to link the Fellowship’s emphasis on health to energy education,” says Allee. “Individually speaking, nutrition is partly about balancing the energy that goes in and the energy that goes out. Looking at the bigger picture, the kinds of energy production methods we use power our communities affect our air and water quality, which directly influence health. And lower energy bills translate to higher disposable incomes which can enable healthier lifestyles.”

Ultimately, Allee could not fit the energy-health pieces of his project into his Fellowship year. But this original vision will likely come to life through a summer camp he is currently developing with the museum.

“If just one child could develop an interest in either computer science or energy through this work, I think the world would benefit as a result, and I would be exceedingly pleased,” says Allee, a firm believer that technological innovation will enable us to overcome the inevitable challenges to human health and resilience that will confront us in the next 100 years due to climate change.

“Broadly, these challenges will present in the areas of nutrition, disease, and natural disaster,” he predicts. “But, far from being a pessimist, I believe that we can anticipate these changes and mitigate them through climate action and by adapting to our changing world with modern science and engineering.”

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