SECOND LIFE: A TOOL FOR TEACHING HAZARDOUS ENVIRONMENT INSPECTIONS
Environmental health seeks to anticipate, regulate and prevent public health effects caused by the environment humans live in. One of the major roles of a practicing environmental heath professional is the inspection and evaluation of environments that affect public health. Additionally, they may have a legal responsibility to advise on and enforce public health standards within built environments.
Previously we have taught principles of environmental protection in the built environment via a number of field trips to such environments. Students are taught inspection procedures and complaint investigation procedures and they discuss legal and regulatory tools that protect public health.
The disadvantages of this method of teaching are that only premises with good public health protection measures in place allow us to visit, and in-depth investigations are not possible. From an occupational health and safety viewpoint students cannot be exposed to environments or interviews with staff that might be authentic to those experienced by practitioners. This means that in the course of their learning experience students will not be exposed to conditions where they can apply the legal, regulatory and advisory aspects of the profession.
We have built an Environmental Health village in Second Life. Second Life is a digital world where its residents create its content virtually. Students create a person (an avatar) that is able to interactively explore the virtual village and perform actions such as opening cupboards, taking photographs and talking to other avatars. We have built a sports centre that is the focus of a disease outbreak. The sports centre is the built environment suspected of harbouring Legionella pneumophila, the bacteria causing Legionnaires’ disease, which, in the fictional scenario presented to the students, has caused a number of cases of legionellosis. The students are given information about the outbreak in the same manner that as public health practitioners, they receive information in a real Legionella outbreak - sequentially, with progressively more information becoming available as they undertake investigation. The students undertake the investigation and action, which involves:
• Inspecting the condition and checking maintenance log books of the spa, the swimming pool, the cooling tower and hot water systems (all manufactured water systems that are capable of harbouring L. pneumophila)
• Developing an understanding of how a built environment such as this is laid out, and correct management/maintenance procedures.
• Collecting water samples for microbial analysis, and performing on site tests of water quality (e.g. pH, available chlorine) using appropriate safety procedures (respiratory protection etc).
• Taking photographs and statements as evidence that may subsequently be used in legal proceedings/inquiries.
• Developing an evidence portfolio to assist the Department of Health to prosecute the Sports Centre under the Public and Environmental Health legislation.
• Acting as an expert witness in legal proceedings
We evaluated whether we had achieved the learning outcomes using questionnaires and by analyzing students work. The results indicate that students are completely engaged in the learning process and that they can readily transfer their virtual learning experience to real world investigations.