Accessible, engaging textbooks could improve children’s learning


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It’s not enough for textbooks just to be present in a classroom. They must support learning.
Global Partnership for Education/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Lizzi O. Milligan, University of Bath

Textbooks are a crucial part of any child’s learning. A large body of research has proved this many times and in many very different contexts. Textbooks are a physical representation of the curriculum in a classroom setting. They are powerful in shaping the minds of children and young people. The Conversation

UNESCO has recognised this power and called for every child to have a textbook for every subject. The organisation argues that

next to an engaged and prepared teacher, well-designed textbooks in sufficient quantities are the most effective way to improve instruction and learning.

But there’s an elephant in the room when it comes to textbooks in African countries’ classrooms: language.

Rwanda is one of many African countries that’s adopted a language instruction policy which sees children learning in local or mother tongue languages for the first three years of primary school. They then transition in upper primary and secondary school into a dominant, so-called “international” language. This might be French or Portuguese. In Rwanda, it has been English since 2008.

Evidence from across the continent suggests that at this transition point, many learners have not developed basic literacy and numeracy skills. And, significantly, they have not acquired anywhere near enough of the language they are about to learn in to be able to engage in learning effectively.

I do not wish to advocate for English medium instruction, and the arguments for mother-tongue based education are compelling. But it’s important to consider strategies for supporting learners within existing policy priorities. Using appropriate learning and teaching materials – such as textbooks – could be one such strategy.

A different approach

It’s not enough to just hand out textbooks in every classroom. The books need to tick two boxes: learners must be able to read them and teachers must feel enabled to teach with them.

Existing textbooks tend not to take these concerns into consideration. The language is too difficult and the sentence structures too complex. The paragraphs too long and there are no glossaries to define unfamiliar words. And while textbooks are widely available to those in the basic education system, they are rarely used systematically. Teachers cite the books’ inaccessibility as one of the main reasons for not using them.

A recent initiative in Rwanda has sought to address this through the development of “language supportive” textbooks for primary 4 learners who are around 11 years old. These were specifically designed in collaboration with local publishers, editors and writers.

Language supportive textbooks have been shown to make a difference in some Rwandan classrooms.

There are two key elements to a “language supportive” textbook.

Firstly, they are written at a language level which is appropriate for the learner. As can be seen in Figure 1, the new concept is introduced in as simple English as possible. The sentence structure and paragraph length are also shortened and made as simple as possible. The key word (here, “soil”) is also repeated numerous times so that the learner becomes accustomed to this word.

University of Bristol and the British Council

Secondly, they include features – activities, visuals, clear signposting and vocabulary support – that enable learners to practice and develop their language proficiency while learning the key elements of the curriculum.

The books are full of relevant activities that encourage learners to regularly practice their listening, speaking, reading and writing of English in every lesson. This enables language development.

Crucially, all of these activities are made accessible to learners – and teachers – by offering support in the learners’ first language. In this case, the language used was Kinyarwanda, which is the first language for the vast majority of Rwandan people. However, it’s important to note that initially many teachers were hesitant about incorporating Kinyarwanda into their classroom practice because of the government’s English-only policy.

Improved test scores

The initiative was introduced with 1075 students at eight schools across four Rwandan districts. The evidence from our initiative suggests that learners in classrooms where these books were systematically used learnt more across the curriculum.

When these learners sat tests before using the books, they scored similar results to those in other comparable schools. After using the materials for four months, their test scores were significantly higher. Crucially, both learners and teachers pointed out how important it was that the books sanctioned the use of Kinyarwanda. The classrooms became bilingual spaces and this increased teachers’ and learners’ confidence and competence.

All of this supports the importance of textbooks as effective learning and teaching materials in the classroom and shows that they can help all learners. But authorities mustn’t assume that textbooks are being used or that the existing books are empowering teachers and learners.

Textbooks can matter – but it’s only when consideration is made for the ways they can help all learners that we can say that they can contribute to quality education for all.

Lizzi O. Milligan, Lecturer in International Education, University of Bath

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Younger is not always better when it comes to learning a second language


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Learning a language in a classroom is best for early teenagers.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

Warren Midgley, University of Southern Queensland

It’s often thought that it is better to start learning a second language at a young age. But research shows that this is not necessarily true. In fact, the best age to start learning a second language can vary significantly, depending on how the language is being learned. The Conversation

The belief that younger children are better language learners is based on the observation that children learn to speak their first language with remarkable skill at a very early age.

Before they can add two small numbers or tie their own shoelaces, most children develop a fluency in their first language that is the envy of adult language learners.

Why younger may not always be better

Two theories from the 1960s continue to have a significant influence on how we explain this phenomenon.

The theory of “universal grammar” proposes that children are born with an instinctive knowledge of the language rules common to all humans. Upon exposure to a specific language, such as English or Arabic, children simply fill in the details around those rules, making the process of learning a language fast and effective.

The other theory, known as the “critical period hypothesis”, posits that at around the age of puberty most of us lose access to the mechanism that made us such effective language learners as children. These theories have been contested, but nevertheless they continue to be influential.

Despite what these theories would suggest, however, research into language learning outcomes demonstrates that younger may not always be better.

In some language learning and teaching contexts, older learners can be more successful than younger children. It all depends on how the language is being learned.

Language immersion environment best for young children

Living, learning and playing in a second language environment on a regular basis is an ideal learning context for young children. Research clearly shows that young children are able to become fluent in more than one language at the same time, provided there is sufficient engagement with rich input in each language. In this context, it is better to start as young as possible.

Learning in classroom best for early teens

Learning in language classes at school is an entirely different context. The normal pattern of these classes is to have one or more hourly lessons per week.

To succeed at learning with such little exposure to rich language input requires meta-cognitive skills that do not usually develop until early adolescence.

For this style of language learning, the later years of primary school is an ideal time to start, to maximise the balance between meta-cognitive skill development and the number of consecutive years of study available before the end of school.

Self-guided learning best for adults

There are, of course, some adults who decide to start to learn a second language on their own. They may buy a study book, sign up for an online course, purchase an app or join face-to-face or virtual conversation classes.

To succeed in this learning context requires a range of skills that are not usually developed until reaching adulthood, including the ability to remain self-motivated. Therefore, self-directed second language learning is more likely to be effective for adults than younger learners.

How we can apply this to education

What does this tell us about when we should start teaching second languages to children? In terms of the development of language proficiency, the message is fairly clear.

If we are able to provide lots of exposure to rich language use, early childhood is better. If the only opportunity for second language learning is through more traditional language classes, then late primary school is likely to be just as good as early childhood.

However, if language learning relies on being self-directed, it is more likely to be successful after the learner has reached adulthood.

Warren Midgley, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics, University of Southern Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

British Council Backs Bilingual Babies


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The British Council is to open a bilingual pre-school in Hong Kong in August. The International Pre-School, which will teach English and Cantonese and have specific times set aside for Mandarin, will follow the UK-based International Primary Curriculum.

The British Council already has bilingual pre-schools in Singapore (pictured above) and Madrid. The adoption of a bilingual model of early years learning, rather than a purely English-medium one, is supported by much of the research on this age group. In a randomised control trial in the US state of New Jersey, for example, three- and four-year-olds from both Spanish- and English-speaking backgrounds were assigned by lottery to either an all-English or English–Spanish pre-school programme which used an identical curriculum. The study found that children from the bilingual programme emerged with the same level of English as those in the English-medium one, but both the Spanish-speaking and anglophone children had a much higher level of Spanish.

http://www.elgazette.com/item/281-british-council-backs-bilingual-babies.html

How language drives students’ transition from rural to urban areas


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Thelma Kathleen Buchholz Mort, Cape Peninsula University of Technology

Molofo and Bulewani are training as teachers at a university in one of South Africa’s largest cities, Cape Town. Both young men come from rural backgrounds and English is not their first language. Their experiences of moving from a rural area to a city, and of becoming English speakers, offer a fascinating insight into how language development and social transition are intertwined.

There are about 25,720 state schools in South Africa, and 11,252 are designated as rural. These rural schools tend to be poorly resourced – some don’t have proper furniture, let alone enough teachers or textbooks. Most pupils are taught in their mother tongues, not English, and even if they do learn in English they have little chance to practice speaking it at home or outside school. Pupils from schools in such areas tend not to perform as well in their final exams as their urban counterparts.

It was language that set Bulewani and Molofo apart from their classmates. I interviewed them, along with two other teaching students, as part of a research project presented at the 2015 South African Education Research Association Conference. An article based on this research has been submitted to the SA Journal of Education and is under review. The research findings echo results from elsewhere in the world: participants reported that “leaving behind” their home languages and their physical homes produced a sense of both loss and gain.

Social distance

It is important that this research used rural areas as a context. Such areas tend to be linguistically, educationally and economically isolated from the rest of a country. The students’ experiences are about more than just geographic distance between their rural homes and the city where they study – they’re about social distance, too.

US educationalist John H Schumann talks about this idea of social distance in his research, explaining it as the distance between two language groups in second-language acquisition. Social closeness involves being embedded in a culture. The more culturally comfortable one is, the less the social distance and the easier it is to learn the relevant new language.

Lives in transition

Molofo and Bulewani come from areas where they weren’t surrounded by English speakers. In some rural schools, even the teachers are not particularly proficient in English. Pupils are meant to be taught according to a policy of additive bilingualism – they learn in their mother tongues until Grade 4, and then switch to English as the language of teaching and learning.

This seldom happens, and neither Molofo nor Bulewani learned English this way. They had good English teachers who forced them to speak the language, and both found that they loved it. By the end of their school careers, the young men spoke English well enough to pass it and qualify for university entrance. They also spoke it well enough and had performed well enough at school to earn bursaries. Without this financial support, they would not have been able to take up their university places.

There were two transitory moments at play for Molofo and Bulewani. One involved a physical movement from a rural to an urban area. The other was a transition from functioning in their home or mother tongue to primarily speaking English. Both transitions were facilitated by their acceptance to university. The move came at a cost, though. One of the questions posed in the research was whether students felt that their culture had changed or was under threat because they had learned English. Both said they were losing tradition – but that this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Molofo comes from the Eastern Cape province and grew up in an area governed by a chief. Such areas operate under traditional law. Constitutional democracy, with its notions of guaranteed rights, is remote. He had discovered a greater sense of equality and justice since moving to the city, explaining:

I am not that much interested in a traditional way because there is a lot that I discover that is not fair. Some of the things are not happening in the way they are supposed to. It depends maybe on who you are.

Loss

Bulewani celebrated the fact that he felt more in charge of his own destiny since his “transitions”. But he also experienced profound loss. His family – who are also from the Eastern Cape – lived off the land, and he missed this way of life. He remarked, for instance, that while at home he could go and pick something from the fields, whereas in the city he had to go out and spend money to buy food.

Mostly, though, his feelings of loss revolved around language:

I am losing a lot of words. I miss a lot of words … I am becoming more educated, but I am losing a lot of things in my culture. I am learning a lot of things from Western culture. Talking English. But I am losing a lot of things. I am losing some Xhosa language and traditions.

New voices

Universities need to start collecting more background information about their students to help them settle into this new environment and achieve their goals. For instance, institutions don’t know how many students are from rural areas and might be grappling with the sorts of changes Molofo and Bulewani articulated.

These young men’s voices open an important window on South Africa’s fast-changing society. They are at the forefront of this change, which is both positive and has obvious gains; but is also bittersweet and accompanied by a sense of loss.

The Conversation

Thelma Kathleen Buchholz Mort, PhD student with the Centre for International Teacher Education, Cape Peninsula University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How teachers can help migrant learners feel more included


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Helen Hanna, Leeds Trinity University

Children are often at the forefront of working out what it means to be a new arrival in a different country. They feel the anxiety that comes with being the new girl or boy at school. They’re in an environment that emphasises “integration” – learning new rules, making new friends, possibly learning a new language and grappling with a new testing regime.

Amid all of these changes, teachers may not realise how important it is simply for children to feel included. Even making their home countries a feature of lessons in, for example, geography can help children feel more at ease. It is a valuable opportunity for them to contribute. If their identities are ignored these children may feel detached from school. This sense of detachment has been shown to negatively affect learning. It may also have more serious consequences for a child’s sense of belonging and, ultimately, well-being.

Research I am currently doing in South Africa and England – countries with long histories of migration – looks at the inclusion of migrant learners in primary schools through their own lens, quite literally. The children take photographs in school as a way of explaining and engaging with their environment as a place of inclusion and exclusion.

Children as migrants

South Africa’s 2011 census showed that almost 2.2 million people living there were born elsewhere. Some are economic migrants, seeking work. Others are refugees or asylum seekers. There is also a large population of undocumented migrants. Most come from other African countries.

It’s not known exactly how many migrant children attend South African schools. New arrivals – especially refugees – may lack the formal documentation required for school registration. Added to this challenge is the reality of xenophobic attacks against new immigrants.

On paper, at least, children enjoy good protection. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child requires all signatories – South Africa and the UK included – to adhere to a long list of rights. These include the right to free primary education, non-discrimination and to be consulted on anything that affects them.

But my previous research in conflict-affected societies revealed that children and adolescents, particularly those from marginalised groups, struggle with freedom of speech in school. They also don’t often feel represented in the curriculum.

A new, visual voice

My new, ongoing research explored inclusion in primary schools from the point of view of recent migrant children. The learner-researchers, who are nine or ten years old, worked in small groups, each child using a digital camera. We worked with The Arrival, a wordless picturebook that has recently started to be used in this sort of research. It helped the children think about what it’s like to arrive in a new country and stimulated memories of their own experiences.

Then we walked together around school photographing signs, classrooms, playgrounds and people – anything that the children thought was important to know about their school. Finally, we talked about the photos and came up with some advice for teachers and other learners about how to help new arrivals feel included.

Three ways to include migrant learners

So how can we include migrant learners in school? Here are three tips based on a combination of what the learners in the two countries shared while taking part in the photographic project.

First, ask them. Children struggle with the idea that they are free to make suggestions to adults. I found that when we tried to come up with a list of advice for teachers, it turned into a list of rules for the learner to keep. It emerged that some things teachers did to be helpful, like getting the learner to introduce themselves on the first day, were the opposite of what the children wanted – to be welcomed quietly while sitting with a classmate.

Part of the process of doing research that involves children as participants includes building their capacity so that they can see themselves as individuals who have something important to say. Simply explaining that “We, as adults, know some things about school, but you also know many things that I don’t know because you go to this school” can empower them.

Second, be creative. Use picturebooks, photography, music and dance. These methods can engage new arrivals in a way that doesn’t demand great proficiency or confidence in using the school’s language. Of course the school day is very demanding for both learners and educators, but finding time to do something outside of the normal routine may pay great dividends in learners’ confidence and well-being.

Third, make sure that their identities are discussed and valued in the curriculum, and reflected in their school’s ethos. We must allow them to “find themselves in the story” of what they are learning in school. This will ensure their confidence in who they are, and is particularly important for marginalised groups. The very fact that these learners were chosen to take part in this project seemed to make them feel privileged and valued.

Children’s voices matter

The late statesman Nelson Mandela is quoted as declaring that:

Children are our greatest treasure. They are our future.

Migrant children are a part of this great treasure. They must be included – and this will happen best when their own voices and stories are heard.

Author’s note: most of the children’s photographs featured their own faces, and so cannot be republished here. I would also like to acknowledge the support of the Centre for International Teacher Education at the CPUT, where I have been working as a visiting researcher.

The Conversation

Helen Hanna, Lecturer in Education Studies and Visiting Researcher at Centre for International Teacher Education, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Leeds Trinity University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

English: the Empire is dead. Long live the Empire


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Salikoko S. Mufwene, University of Chicago

English was born in the 7th century in England – a small island nation a quarter of the size of France. Since the 17th century, it has become the mother tongue of all locally-born Brits, Americans and Canadians (except for Native Americans on reservations), most Australian and New Zealanders, and several Caribbeans, in the form of English creoles. It has also become the official language of numerous countries of the British Commonwealth: in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific.

English remains the dominant working language of the United Nations, although Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, French, Russian, and Spanish are also used as official languages of the organisation. It has become the dominant working language of the European Union too.

English has become the dominant working language of the European Union

The rise of English is unparalleled in world history – dwarfing even the impressive territorial and demographic expansion of Latin, the administrative language of the Western Roman Empire, of the Catholic Church, and of the European scholarly elite for centuries.

The companion of empire

The worldwide spread of English began with the lucrative colonial ventures of that small island. As an imperial language, English has done better than, for instance, Spanish and Russian.

Spanish spread from Castile to the rest of Spain and then to most of Latin America from the 15th century. However, its spread to the rest of the world was curtailed when it lost Morocco and The Philippines as major exploitation colonies. Russian’s importance as a lingua franca of the former Soviet Union has also decreased since the collapse of this communist bloc.

England’s biggest linguistic victory, however, has been over France – its biggest rival in the colonial venture since the 18th century. This nation, which has celebrated the superiority of its culture and language, must surely envy the success of English.

France started losing the maritime provinces of Canada and some of its Caribbean island colonies to England in the 18th century. In 1803, the emerging United States bought a massive chunk of the New France Colony from Napoleon Bonaparte in the Louisiana Purchase.

The acquisition of this vast territory by the United States – from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, from the Gulf of Mexico to the southern border of Quebec, and beyond, cleared the way for the spread of English from the east to the west coast. The growth of American and Canadian populations since then has resulted in a significant increase in the number of mother-tongue English speakers.

The process continues to date as a consequence of mass migration. The current influx of Hispanics to the US is a transition comparable to the immigration of continental Europeans to North America since the 19th century. With their children acquiring English with native competence, the adult Hispanic immigrants are likely to take their heritage languages and their nonnative accents with them to their graves, as did adult continental European immigrants before them.

English in trade, science and scholarship

Now, in the postcolonial era, English has been expanding largely because of the emergence of the US and the British Commonwealth as the dominant players in world trade. In this game, it is the buyer’s language, not the seller’s, that comes out on top – especially when the buyer is truly king.

The economic and military power of the US and its role in saving Europe from two world wars have promoted English to the status of the foremost diplomatic language, thus demoting French. Its leadership, along with the United Kingdom’s, in science and technology has also made English the dominant world lingua franca of scholarship. Even the French and the Germans, economically powerful and influential as they are in science and technology, have had to bow to English. More and more of their scholars publish in English.

To be sure, there are languages such as Hindi and Mandarin, and in fact even Spanish, which have more mother-tongue speakers than English. But from the point of view of what language one needs to be competitive in the scholarly and business world today, English dominates.

In fact, the rise of China as a leading world economic power is helping the spread of English more than it does Mandarin. There are hundreds of millions of speakers of Cantonese, Haka, Hokkien, and other Sinitic languages who learn Mandarin (otherwise known as Putonghua) as the common, official language of China. By my calculations, these Mandarin learners are outnumbered by the multitude of Chinese and other peoples learning English.

A world of many, unequal Englishes

Since the 1950s, even more countries have adopted English as their international language of trade and scholarship. The Indian-born linguist Braj Kachru at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign refers to them as the “Expanding Circle”.

This is in opposition to the “Inner Circle” and the “Outer Circle”. The Inner Circle includes all countries where English is the mother tongue of the majority population. By contrast, the “Outer Circle” consists of Britain’s former colonies, in which English is an official language but is not spoken as a mother tongue by the overwhelming majority of its users.

Although Kachru’s typology has its limitations, it captures some of the power dynamics in world English: native speakers from the Inner Circle claim more authority on English than speakers in the Outer and Expanding circles. They dictate the norms in publishing and international broadcast. They are also less subject to stigmatisation for their grammatical and spoken peculiarities.

The Conversation

Salikoko S. Mufwene, The Frank J. McLoraine Distinguished Service Professor of Linguistics and the College, University of Chicago

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Letting kids stand more in the classroom could help them learn


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Ranjana Mehta, Texas A&M University

Study after study has connected inactivity with negative health outcomes, including heart disease, diabetes and hypertension. But most of this attention has been focused on adults in an office environment, and the negative impact of sitting on physical health. Hence, the growing popularity of standing desks in offices.

Moving more is good for our bodies. Over the past few years many researchers have begun evaluating the use of standing-height desks (allowing students to sit on a stool or stand at will) instead of the more traditional seated desks in school classrooms. Results have been promising, but until now, researchers have typically focused on utilizing standing desks as a way to combat sedentary behavior.

While studies shows that standing desks can burn calories, anecdotal evidence from teachers suggests that students also focus more and behave better while using standing desks.

But is there anything to these anecdotal observations? Our team at the Texas A&M Ergonomics Center decided to investigate whether standing desks had neurocognitive benefits for students. It turns out that letting kids move in the classroom helps boost attention and focus.

Standing desks let kids move more.
Your Milbura/Flickr, CC BY

Standing desks in schools help kids burn calories

My colleague, Dr. Mark Benden, first looked at classroom movement as a way to deal with the growing number of obese children. In the past three decades, childhood obesity rates have quadrupled, particularly in adolescents aged 12-19 years.

Benden found that students assigned to classrooms equipped with standing desks that allow the students to have the option to stand or sit on a stool, burned 15 to 25 percent more calories than those assigned to traditional seated classrooms.

While burning calories is certainly important, the question at hand is whether standing desks improve learning.

Standing helps students stay engaged

In a study of nearly 300 children in second through fourth grade over the course of a school year, Benden and his team found that kids in classrooms with standing desks exhibited 12 percent greater “on task” engagement when compared to kids in classrooms with the traditional seated desks.

Engagement was measured both during fall and spring by looking at behaviors such as answering questions, raising a hand or participating in active discussion. However, we aren’t sure if standing height desks were behind the increase in classroom engagement. For instance, the way desks are arranged in a classroom and how well teachers engage the students can also influence classroom engagement.

Thus, Dr. Benden and I set out to explore the benefits of standing desks on basic cognitive tasks such as reaction time, response inhibition, attention, memory and cognitive flexibility.

Together, these abilities are lumped as executive function. Figuring out how well someone’s executive function is working is a proxy for measuring goal-directed behavior that is integral cognitive development.

Maybe standing will help?
Boy in class via www.shutterstock.com.

Freedom to sit or stand makes more attentive students

We studied 34 high school freshman who used standing desks at two points during the school year. Desks were installed in the classrooms during the fall so we could compare the same kids before they got the standing desks and after. We wanted to see whether continued use of standing desks affected executive functions.

Executive functions are cognitive skills we all use to analyze tasks, break them into steps and keep them in mind until we get them done. These skills are directly related to the development of many academic skills that allow students to manage their time effectively, memorize facts, understand what they read, solve multistep problems and organize their thoughts in writing.

We gave students a series of computerized tests to assess their executive function, which they took at standing desks in a computer lab. This allowed us to isolate the effects of the standing desk from classroom configuration and other classroom variables. Because executive functions are largely regulated in the frontal brain region, students wore biosensors on their foreheads while taking the tests. That way, our portable brain imaging device (functional near infrared spectroscopy) could track changes in frontal brain function.

Our test results indicated that continued use of standing desks was associated with significant performance improvements in executive function and working memory capabilities. Changes in corresponding brain activation patterns were also observed.

This is the first study to objectively examine students’ cognitive responses while using standing desks and provide a neuropsychological basis of the improvements observed. Moreover, by testing basic cognitive functions, we got to measure the impact of standing desks on the building blocks of child behavior in classrooms.

Interestingly, our research showed the use of standing desks improved neurocognitive function by seven percent to 14 percent, which is consistent with results from previous studies on school-based exercise programs.

Kindergarten students sing a song inside a classroom at Penjaringan district in Jakarta.
Beawiharta/Reuters

We all need to move more

We now plan to expand this research to multiple schools and to study more children across different age groups, and over several years. Further research could encourage policymakers, public health professionals and school administrators to consider simple and sustainable changes in classrooms to increase physical activity and enhance cognitive development and educational outcomes.

Let’s face it – society as a whole used to be more active. Standing desks allow for children to stand or sit at will and these transitions facilitate movement. If we can start slowly changing behaviors in children (and allow them to wiggle, fidget and move during the school day), movement could become the norm.

After all science says we think better when we move.

The Conversation

Ranjana Mehta, Assistant Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health, Texas A&M University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.