Fall 2004 Table of Contents
Applause, Applause
NYU Dental Team Offers Salk Science School
Students a Lesson in Science and Civics

It was an unusual request. Dr. Ralph V. Katz, Professor and Chair of the Department of Epidemiology & Health Promotion, stepped in front of three dozen seventh grade students at Manhattan’s Jonas Salk School of Science and said:

“My friends, please support my plan to put wind-generating turbines in your community, and keep one thing in mind: wind is a clean and reliable energy source – not the noisy, inefficient system that some people say it is.”

He stepped back for a moment and added: “This is just an imaginary scenario. But how would you react if your community were really debating the pros and cons of wind energy?”

Dr. Katz, his wife, Barbara Frey – a librarian who has extensively researched renewable energy – and seven NYU dental students were staging a mock town hall meeting on wind energy for the Salk School students, based on a real-world debate occurring in many communities across the United States and Europe. Government officials in some localities have sought to install the turbines in order to comply with regulations mandating the use of renewable energy sources, and Dr. Katz and Ms. Frey witnessed such a debate in Devon in southwest England, where they have a cottage. Dr. Katz and Ms. Frey thought that staging a similar debate at the Salk School would help the youngsters to evaluate and take an active role in public discussions of controversial scientific issues.

Founded nine years ago as a partnership between New York City Public School District 2 and the NYU School of Medicine (SOM), the Salk School specializes in training students in grades six to eight as part of SOM’s Programs for Preparatory Education in Science and Medicine, which support students who are underrepresented in these fields from middle school through their senior year of college. Committed to excellence and equity, Salk offers all students the opportunity to reach the high academic standards necessary for the challenges of the 21st century. NYU dental students first volunteered at Salk two years ago, when they helped Salk students prepare presentations for a science health fair at the school, located on East 20th Street, just four blocks from the NYU College of Dentistry.

“The partnership has blossomed because dental students have a solid understanding of health and biomedical issues and the ability to think through and critically evaluate scientific information,” Salk School coordinator Lisa Kozlowski says.

In the mock town hall meeting, Dr. Katz played the role of a government official sent to a small Devon town to extol wind energy’s benefits.

“As a member of the European Union, England must have 10 percent of its energy coming from non-fossil fuel sources by 2020,” he told the Salk class. “Wind provides a limitless source of renewable energy.”

The students got a different perspective from Daniel Javaheri, a senior dental student assuming the role of an engineer representing townspeople opposed to the turbines. “Wind turbines are not as efficient as conventional energy sources. If the wind speed is too low or too high, no electricity is produced.”

Added a local resident played by second-year dental student Nicole Datny: “I don’t want a 300-foot-high turbine next to my house. The constant thumping and whooshing would keep us on edge day and night. Let’s find a source of renewable energy that won’t damage our environment.”

Other dental students played a variety of pro and con roles. Among them: a local resident who wanted to profit by selling land to the turbine company and another who feared that a turbine next door would drive down his property values.

The junior high students then broke up into discussion groups to review the arguments and formulate their own positions.

Dr. Katz wrapped up the class with a homework assignment: “Think about all the viewpoints you heard, choose the one you like best, and write a letter from that person’s perspective to a local elected official in Devon.” That assignment gave the Salk students an opportunity to refine their views. The students were then presented with another imaginary scenario involving wind energy – this one closer to home, involving Westchester and Putnam, two neighboring counties in New York. They were asked to take sides in a classroom debate over a proposal to put a wind farm in Putnam, opposed by the Putnam residents but favored in Westchester as an alternative to Westchester’s controversial Indian Point nuclear plant. The dental team returned to judge that debate and to help the Salk students with the final part of their lesson in science and civics – a videotaped presentation in which they expressed their views on the Westchester-Putnam debate and a real-life proposal to build a wind farm in the waters off Jones Beach on Long Island.

“The Salk students learned that carefully evaluating science can be important to their communities’ well-being,” Dr. Katz concluded. Added Ms. Kozlowski: “Students gathered conflicting information, established their points of view, and learned how to present it to others.”