Math and Science PowerAid Helps High School Students Understand Public Health

Posted: March 10, 2014 at 5:02 am, Last Updated: March 11, 2014 at 7:02 am

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By Sudha Kamath

PowerAid 2, Laura Poms and Anya Coleman

Health professor Laura Poms, left, and Mason student Anya Coleman speak to a group of high school students in the Early Identification Program. Photo courtesy of Laura Poms

George Mason University undergraduate student and her professor have come up with a new component for George Mason’s Early Identification Program (EIP) to help high school students get a jumpstart on public health education and careers.

Anya Coleman, a Mason senior in the College of Health and Human Services‘ Department of Global and Community Health, first found out about EIP’s Math and Science PowerAid (MSPA) last year while taking Laura Wheeler Poms‘ class on the social determinants of health. PowerAid offers area high school students help on subjects including math, science, reading, writing and college test preparation. The students are enrolled in EIP Saturday classes during the school year on Mason’s Fairfax Campus. Coleman and Poms identified a need for a public health education component to MSPA.

“I was immediately attracted to the idea of shaping young student’s lives and mindsets toward public health… prior to college enrollment to get them to major in a public health discipline and get them started in the field early,” says Coleman.

Coleman focused on the fields of public health that incorporate math and science as their foundations. She found that epidemiology — the study of how diseases are spread and controlled — fit the bill.

“Math is used to evaluate and calculate how many new cases of a disease occurs and determines what groups might be more likely to develop the disease. Science is used to study the type of disease it is, such as what microorganisms are involved, what happens to the individuals when they are in contact. Combining the two makes it a lot more interesting for the student to understand how learning both fields is vital to succeeding in this field,” she explains.

Anya Coleman and David Tenney

Coleman and David Tenney, a graduate student in public health, address the EIP students. Photo courtesy of Laura Poms

“For example, the high school students learn in epidemiology that we compare a group with a particular exposure or risk factor to those without the exposure or risk factor using a ratio to see if one group is more likely than the other to develop a particular disease,” says Poms. “The information about exposures and diseases comes from scientific studies. We can then talk about a plan to see if we can reduce the risk from the exposure. They learn that math and science really do matter in the real world.”

David Tenney, a Mason graduate student in public health, became involved in MSPA last fall for several reasons. “Not only the opportunity to help high schoolers with all my ‘old man wisdom,’ but also to network with other quality motivators who genuinely desire to serve others,” he explains.

Tenney also mentors EIP students at a public high school in Alexandria in a wide range of subjects, including French, English, Spanish, physics, algebra, history and biology. He feels rewarded when students want to find out more.

“Really, any sincere question is cherished. The question represents a genuine desire on their part to learn something,” says Tenney. “I hope MSPA gives those students with interest in engineering, computer science or pre-medicine the confidence and foundational knowledge to proceed with the potentially long path.”

Coleman agrees. “Students are typically used to the basics of math and science — for example, algebra, earth science, biology — so we wanted to show them how it could be interpreted into a career field; how everything they are learning in school isn’t for nothing! I want to show them that these fields can be very interesting and engaging.”

For Coleman, the students’ reactions are the most rewarding. “Getting the students excited about public health,” she says, “seeing their faces when they actually get it. Health is life and fun!”

EIP executive director Lewis E. Forrest II describes the benefit of collaborating with Poms and CHHS students as twofold. “It exposes EIP students to the variety of career options within the public health related fields, and it serves as a potential pathway for students into the College of Health and Human Services. We are educating and attracting students to the type of experiences they will have at Mason through collaborations like this,” he says.

Attendance in PowerAid, which is sponsored by Northrop Grumman and Wells Fargo, has risen to 230 students each school year from neighboring cities and counties in the Washington, D.C., region.

The program has come full circle for Rhina Ascencio. She was a part of EIP from the age of 13 through high school graduation. That included PowerAid classes. “Thanks to EIP I won a four-year, full tuition scholarship to Mason,” says Ascencio.

She graduated with bachelor’s degrees in biology and English. Now, Ascenio is working on a master’s degree in education and a graduate certificate in folklore. And, she’s the program coordinator for Math and Science PowerAid.  “I am helping others in the same way I was helped,” says Ascenio. “Students are giving up their Saturday to add to their personal academic enrichment…. For EIP, our students’ academic needs come first and Power Aid is the perfect backdrop to support our students.”

Write to Sudha Kamath at

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