Efforts to halt underage drinking often focus on peer pressure and the prevention of risky behaviors, but AAAS is undertaking a new federally funded project to give middle-school children a science-based understanding of what can happen to them if they use alcohol.
The three-year project, called “The Science Inside Alcohol,” will incorporate recent advances in neuroscience that have been shedding new light on how alcohol affects the body. It is funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) with an initial grant of $253,000 and an anticipated total of $831,000.
The project will draw on AAAS’s long experience in developing standards and benchmarks for effective science education. It is getting underway as a new study in the September issue of the journal Prevention Science suggests that teachers and parents should pay attention to alcohol prevention as early as the fourth grade. The analysis, by psychiatrist John E. Donovan of the University of Pittsburgh, cited one national survey in which 6.9 percent of fourth graders and 12.9 percent of sixth graders reported alcohol use during the past 12 months.
While prevention messages, including warnings that alcohol can make youngsters do things they ordinarily would not do, are an important part of the effort to stop underage drinking, the new AAAS project will go beyond a purely prevention approach. It will offer students, and their adult teachers, a look at key scientific concepts related to alcohol use and abuse in simple, direct language.
“Capitalizing on middle-schoolers’ natural curiosity about their minds and bodies and presenting scientific evidence of how alcohol affects them is quite innovative,” said David Hanson, a professor emeritus of sociology at the State University of New York at Potsdam who has studied alcohol use in youth for more than 30 years. “This work could have major impact on how parents and teachers talk to youth about drinking.”
Evidence suggests that alcohol affects the body of a younger person far differently than that of an adult. Far more structural and brain development takes place during the teenage years than previously thought and that development can be seriously damaged by alcohol consumption. For example, research by Linda Spear, a distinguished professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Binghamton, shows that adolescents are less sensitive to the physical effects that emerge during intoxication and the hangover that follows. As a result, they may be less likely to moderate the amount of alcohol they consume.
The AAAS project will develop both a one-week course for middle-school classrooms and a plain-language informational booklet for parents, teachers and other adults interested in the latest research findings on adolescent drinking. The classroom teaching module will be supplemented with innovative online tools to help engage the students.
Scientists have identified some of the challenges students face in developing a proper biological understanding of alcohol’s effects. Studies suggest, for example, that middle-school and high-school students have difficulty thinking of the human body as a chemical system and have little knowledge about the elements composing the living body.
The AAAS-developed course will discuss such concepts as the specialization of cells and how various cells in the body are affected by the consumption of alcohol. Consistent with the evidence-based nature of science, the discussion of alcohol’s effect on the body will not be limited to findings of potential harm. Scientists continue to explore, for example, whether moderate use of alcohol may have some beneficial effect against heart disease.
The education project will develop detailed teachers guides to help teachers integrate the content into biology, chemistry or health curricula. The teaching module will be disseminated through the ScienceNetLinks website, which serves the K-12 science education community. Science NetLinks is part of Thinkfinity, a partnership between the Verizon Foundation and a group of premier educational organizations, including AAAS.
An electronic version of the plain-language booklet for adults will be posted to the AAAS’s “Science Inside” website. That site offers a series of texts on the science underlying various diseases and health conditions, including asthma and allergies, diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure.
“AAAS is dedicated to public engagement in science and technology,” said Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS. “The Science Inside series helps us inform and educate people about healthcare and science issues that affect their daily lives.”