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Finding Social Justice in AMHS Science Classes

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In January, Archbishop Mitty High School (AMHS) opened the John A. and Susan Sobrato Science and Student Life Center, which provides spaces for students to study physics, chemistry, computer science, and robotics. This is the first of a three-part series that highlights how AMHS science courses explore social justice in the classroom.

When the film about typhoid fever stopped, students turned their attention to the teacher and started to discuss the different perspectives of characters in the film. Reviewing the life of Mary Mallon, better known as “Typhoid Mary” because she was an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever, could have been taught by just laying out the facts of the case. Instead, the conversation took a turn toward social justice when Mrs. Slevin, the teacher of a course called Human Health and Disease in Society, mentioned that Mallon’s status as an Irish immigrant and woman in the early 1900’s might have influenced the dismal way she was treated after her diagnosis. Mrs. Slevin asked her students to practice empathy as they took turns summarizing the perspectives of different people in the movie, including health officials, family members who lost a loved one to typhoid, and Mallon.

“The class supports everything that Catholic Social Teaching teaches,” said Mrs. Slevin, who added the class looks at the physical, mental, and social aspects of health. “You just can’t have good health unless you look after each other in every single way.”

The Human Health and Disease in Society class is a semester-long, lab-based science elective designed to get seniors thinking about how the distribution of wealth, opportunity, and privilege affects the outbreak of infectious diseases, such as typhoid fever, malaria, and Ebola. The curriculum also examines various spheres of public health, common diseases, vaccines, obesity, and the cycle of addiction. Addressing the heart of the AMHS mission, the course gives students a rigorous academic background that prepares them for college while teaching them to be community leaders who promote service, peace, and justice in a global society. It’s the kind of class where students are invited to apply what they learn and to consider how they can contribute to making the world a better place.

A recent class discussion of the etiology and treatment of malaria, for instance, had students examining why third world countries continue to be plagued by malaria while the same disease remains virtually nonexistent in first world countries, like the United States. Students realized that people in first world countries were less likely to try to prevent the spread of malaria in other parts of the world because they weren’t very aware of the disease.

For students in Mrs. Slevin’s class, the focus of each lesson isn’t just on the facts, but on empathy and social justice. The class provides a look at how disease affects the human body, while also looking at how the distribution of wealth, opportunity, and privilege play huge factors in the treatment people receive and who gets sick in the first place.