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A smarter way to teach sun safety

Public health campaigns have tried to persuade people that tanning is a bad idea for many years. A trip to the beach on a summer weekend shows just how successful these campaigns have been.

“We’ve been trying to get the sun safety message out for decades; the Australians have been doing it even longer,” said a frustrated Myles Cockburn, associate professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “To summarize 40 years worth of public health effort: We have shown no improvement in behaviors and no change in melanoma incidence rate. We need a different approach.”

Myles Cockburn of Keck School of Medicine of USC

Myles Cockburn, associate professor of preventive medicine (Photo/Courtesy of JEP)

Since 2006, Cockburn has been educating Los Angeles schoolchildren about the dangers of too much sun exposure. His SunSmart program sends student volunteers from USC’s Joint Educational Project and the Keck School’s public health track into USC neighborhood schools to perform a series of “skin cancer interventions.” The program has reached more than 1,000 children from 21 local schools.

Because excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation and a history of sunburns in childhood is associated with the development of melanoma in adulthood, changing kids’ behavior now could greatly reduce cancer in years ahead. Reaching minority youths is particularly important because many don’t realize they are at risk.

But Cockburn was dissatisfied with his program’s results.

“We were doing what everybody else does: standing in front of the kids in the class and telling them stuff,” Cockburn said. Last year, they completely overhauled SunSmart.

Supported by a four-year, $3.2 million National Institutes of Health grant, the improved SunSmart dovetails with the health curricula for students in grades four through eight. Instead of learning dry facts about sun exposure, the students do their own hands-on experiments. Each student receives a UV dosimeter, which can be pinned on a T-shirt or worn on a wristband. The digital device measures and records individual UV exposure.

Students predict their exposure on the schoolyard at different times of day, then test their hypotheses. Using the dosimeters — which cost Cockburn $20 a piece to make in his garage — the kids collect exposure data, download them to a computer and generate charts and graphs to assist in their analyses. Months later, Cockburn’s team administers a questionnaire to evaluate how much information the kids retain and to what extent it has affected their personal habits.

“Kids are much more interested in hands-on science than in health-related topics,” Cockburn said. “The new SunSmart gets them to go and discover for themselves how ultraviolet hits the earth’s surface, what UV exposures they are getting, where the exposures are high and low. And they own it — because it’s their personal exposures that they are looking at rather than some abstraction.”

Next year, the youngsters — by then experienced radiation scientists — will be issued dosimeters for three weeks at a time to measure their UV exposures at home and at school. Worn continually, the dosimeters will measure the kids’ actual post-intervention behaviors — a far better yardstick of the effectiveness of sun safety education than questionnaires.

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A smarter way to teach sun safety

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