Typically when you think about the expected outcomes of a sexual health organization, you would probably expect to see health outcomes like reduced teen birth and sexually-transmitted infection rates. You might also expect to see reduced sexual assault rates or incidence of sexually-based bullying. But generally, adolescent health organizations do not expect to see, or typically look for, an impact on students' general science competencies. Which is why we were recently surprised and pleased to receive anecdotal data from a local partner organization suggesting exactly that – Health Connected’s programs may, in fact, have an impact on student achievement in science.
Health Connected strongly encourages our school partners to incorporate our 5-10 hour sexual health courses into their science curriculum, and roughly 80% of our partners do this. We provide information that is medically accurate, using scientific terms and, over the last several years, have incorporated opportunities for middle and high school students to think critically about the sources of their information about sexual health. But in our 20 years of operation, our impact on student science competency has never been so starkly demonstrated as in an off-hand comment by Elizabeth Schar, the founder of the Ravenswood Science Initiative.
The Ravenswood Science Initiative (RSI) started in 2008 in response to concerns from local high school administrators that students in the high-need Ravenswood City School District (RCSD) in East Palo Alto, CA were not entering high school with the skills to meet basic proficiency requirements in 9th grade science. If they couldn’t succeed in 9th grade science, that effectively eliminated the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) track for those students in high school and beyond. This represented a significant problem for the Ravenswood City School District and the Sequoia Union High School District, as STEM careers provide myriad opportunities for young people, particularly those in underserved communities.
Over the years, Health Connected and RSI have occasionally crossed paths, primarily to coordinate scheduling of our respective services in the RCSD schools. In an effort to solidify that relationship and understand more about how we can support RCSD goals, Health Connected leadership reached out to Ms. Schar in the summer of 2015. In the course of our conversations, Ms. Schar made the following intriguing observations about the unexpected impact of our Teen Talk Middle School course for 7th graders in the school district:
I can tell you the Teen Talk training impacts student life science knowledge, particularly vocabulary. When RSI is presenting labs involving genetics, heredity, flower anatomy and human systems, we see a difference in students’ ability to talk about these areas— pre and post Teen Talk. Post Teen Talk, students are comfortable talking about eggs and sperm and fertilization, how traits transfer between generations. Pre Teen Talk students struggle to describe what they see and explain how traits are shared. It’s a remarkable difference.
Here's an example: We were doing a flower dissection lab at a school. Students cut apart tulip and lily blossoms, drawing them in their lab notebook, labeling the parts. One boy had done such a nice job, I asked him to tell me how the flower worked -- what does pollen do? He explained it all to me, showing me where the pollen needs to fall, which parts of the flower are 'boy parts', which are the 'girl parts'. It's complicated and he had it right. I complimented him. He shrugged. "We just finished Teen Talk," he said.
While Health Connected’s primary goal remains informed sexual health decision-making and ultimately reductions in negative sexual health outcomes such as teen birth rates and sexually transmitted infection rates, these comments suggest an important and overlooked outcome of sexual health education. Is it possible that sex ed not only impacts young people’s long-term sexual health, but also their educational achievement? Given the significant focus in recent years on STEM education, it seems important to think about the role sexual health education plays not only on student decision-making, but also on their academic achievement in science.