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By Brentney Fields

Marshall University School of Pharmacy (MUSOP) is situated in West Virginia where deaths from opioid overdose rose 16.9% from 2014 to 2015 and ranks highest in the country in overdose death rate. On August 15, 2016, there were 26 drug overdoses in a six-hour period in the area near MUSOP due to a trend to “cut” heroin with Fentanyl, which creates a more powerful drug. West Virginia is also struggling with a public education system that ranks somewhere between 34th and 47th place in the nation depending on the source. Students at MUSOP hail from a diverse assortment of places, but many students are from the local area. Growing up in the Appalachian region that is historically economically and educationally disadvantaged has led our students to get involved in giving a hand-up to the next generation of scientists in our region, while also providing much needed early intervention education about prescription drug abuse.

To support this goal, we have committed to providing a local elementary school with supplemental science education once each quarter for the 2017-2018 school year. MUSOP students will lead the classes in hands-on science experiments and education. With many classrooms struggling to provide the bare minimum, the Marshall University AAPS Student Chapter received funding through the AAPS Foundation to support K‒12 student outreach. With our funding, we will be able to purchase supplies and provide exposure to scientific ideas and processes that the children would never have been able to encounter otherwise. We will be providing the students with the equipment and instruction to complete a hands-on experiment from start to finish. Our first session will involve the children placing their fingertips on an agar plate and building a classroom incubator to watch the growth on their plates over time. During the process the children will learn about bacteria and develop their own hypothesis about what they think will happen if they compare hands that are unwashed to hands that have used hand sanitizer or hands that are washed with soap. We want to engage the students and allow them to explore their own questions about the topics we are covering.

AAPS student chapter members will also be providing medication safety education during their science sessions. The students will participate in a game that will teach them how similar pills and candy can look and express the importance of asking an adult before they assume something is safe. We will also instruct students on what to do if they encounter a medical emergency and practice acting out how to respond by calling for help. The likelihood of a child encountering opioid abuse is high enough to warrant early intervention and education about what they should do and who they can call for help if the need ever arises. In 2015, 276,000 children ages 12-17 were non-medical users of prescription pain relievers. Of those misusing prescription drugs, 122,000 were believed to be addicted. The average 12-year-old is just finishing the fifth grade. If we wait to begin educating about prescription drug abuse until there are in middle or high school we may be too late for some. We hope to empower elementary school students to make good choices and open their minds to all the possibilities the study of science could hold for them.

In April, the chapter ran a pilot version of the program with 6th-to 8th grade students at a middle school in Buffalo, WV. Due to the large crowd, it was not possible to have every student work hands on, but the students were engaged in watching phase change ‘dry ice smoke’ and immiscible liquid ‘lava lamp’ demonstrations take place and were even more engaged in the question and answer sessions with the graduate-students. Many of the questions related to the amount of study required for science careers and what they would need to do to get on the right path. There were also many students who had questions regarding addiction as they had seen the results up close.

Interacting with young minds by allowing them to participate as equals in an experiment will build confidence and promote positive change in their lives and we hope to continue this program for many years and expand to other communities here in West Virginia.

Brentney Fields is a P3 student at the Marshall University School of Pharmacy and a founding member and Former President of their AAPS chapter. She is active in advocacy and clinical research related to Cystic Fibrosis.