Our Planet, Our Health course gives students an expansive picture of human health

As an introduction to global health, the UW Summer Term course Our Planet, Our Health certainly lives up to its name. It doesn’t just introduce global health majors and others interested in the topic to health and diseases around the world. It also covers planetary and social health to consider how issues such as climate change, crop selection and even redlining impact humans across the globe.

“We try to give a very systems-level look at global health,” says Susan Paskewitz, one of the co-instructors of the course along with Valerie Stull. “We teach them about diseases and emerging health trends, but we also ground the course in understanding how planetary health and changes could have serious impacts on community health.”

Beyond global warming and rising oceans, other global impacts that connect with human health include agriculture, food insecurity and equity. What crops can be grown where may be affected by malaria if the disease is intense at times of the year when crops have to be harvested. Lead poisoning often colocalizes with neighborhoods that have higher percentages of people of color due to histories of redlining and insufficient care of buildings by landlords.

“The course is required for global health majors, and we also have many students interested in medical careers,” says Paskewitz, professor of entomology and director of the Global Health Undergraduate Programs. “It’s important for them to understand the bigger picture surrounding some of the things they’ll be dealing with in the clinic.”

The class is cross listed as Entomology/Environmental Studies 205. While also offered during the school year, the summer term course offers an online, asynchronous format and fulfills a science breadth requirement for many different majors. Students are expected to watch lectures, participate in discussion sessions and complete assignments each week. The format is ideal for students who are taking other courses or working during the summer.

“I had an internship at the same time, and I was worried that taking a class and working would be too much,” says Mia Quigley, a junior majoring in journalism and mass communication who took the course in summer 2023. “The class was well organized, though. I was able to watch videos and read things on my own time but then show what I learned in group discussions and projects. This helped me retain the information a lot better.”

Students take quizzes and complete larger projects centered on various topics throughout the summer. Projects may ask students to think about their role as global citizens, determine how policy changes might affect the success of a given global health solution, or write an executive summary about a chosen communicable disease.

“One of the projects that students seem to enjoy most is using a simulation tool called En-ROADS,” explains Paskewitz. “It allows you to control different policy levers to get to your desired target for limiting global warming. The students have to consider all kinds of different tactics and see what happens when you shift them in different directions. It’s very illuminating.”

For Quigley and many other students Paskewitz hears from, the course is a win-win. It provides an ideal introduction to global health that encompasses even more than the students expect and allows them to complete a requirement outside of the regular semester schedule.

“By taking this during the summer, I was able to give my full attention to one course, and it gave me so many interesting writing and conversation topics,” says Quigley. “I learned so much from this class that helped me understand the factors that contribute to concerns about our environment, health and planet.”