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  • Manurewa High School’s Health Science Academy took Achievement Standard 90926 Report on a biological issue to a whole new level. Instead of the usual research, discuss and write a report model, students joined with experts from the Liggins Institute and Fisher & Paykel Healthcare to actively investigate the links between physical activity, obesity and diabetes.

    Nicole Stevens and her students resourced their innovative study through the Participatory Science Platform (PSP) supported by the New Zealand Government.

    The students were aware that diabetes is a growing issue in their South Auckland community, but they had mixed opinions on whether obesity is a leading cause. They visited the Liggins Institute’s LENScience to get some expert advice. During the visit, Dr Silmara Gusso taught the students how to calculate their target exercise heart rate. To see real heart rate change, she advised participants would need to reach this target at least four times per week for a minimum of 30 minutes.

    Specialists from Fisher & Paykel Healthcare were on hand to help with project design and management.

    Conducting real research

    The students decided to research two lifestyle components – diet and exercise – and they involved their school and local community in both components. First, they designed physical activity interventions and developed a participant survey to gather student ideas about exercise. Volunteer students used Fitbit heart rate trackers to collect heart rate data during and after exercise events, recording the data in logbooks. Students completed the exercises during organised Friday morning bootcamp sessions and were motivated to exercise in their own time if weather or other events meant scheduled sessions were cancelled.

    While they were learning about diabetes, the Health Science Academy students also learned a good deal about the pitfalls of data collection. Participants shared the Fitbit trackers with other projects. If students forgot to reset the device or record data after each session, the data were lost. The students, teachers and experts have noted the difficulties and will revise the collection protocols when they repeat the study the following year.

    Nature of science

    The New Zealand Curriculum's Investigating in science strand involves more than the doing of science. Students also need to learn about science. The Health Science Academy students discovered that even well designed investigations may not proceed as intended. Scientists regularly refine their experimental designs.

    Healthy food and exercise messages

    Diet was a second component of the diabetes research. The students chose some traditional ethnic foods and modified them to focus on health benefits. They used Manurewa High School’s Health Expo to do blind taste tests of the modified versus traditional versions. The results showed that people generally could not tell the difference between the options, and 80% of the participants were willing to make the change to the modified, healthier recipes. The well-prepared students even had recipe cards for the public to take away!

    The students created displays and pamphlets about diabetes, healthy eating and the sugar levels in soft drinks. They designed an activity game board and demonstrated their physical activity interventions by running planned exercise sessions with groups during the expo and at interval and lunch breaks.

    The Diabetes New Zealand Auckland Branch Mobile Awareness Service was also on site during the expo to offer diabetes testing and advice. Several teachers and members of the public took advantage of the free service. The students were given an overview of the whole process and were able to look around the mobile testing vehicle.

    Sharing their research with the local community

    Next, the Health Science Academy students will share their research findings with their wider community. They plan to visit Manurewa Marae and local churches to run exercise sessions and spread the word about diabetes, healthy eating and active lifestyles.

    Teacher Nicole says, “There was a higher level of learning as students were actually delivering their action plan and explaining their findings to expo delegates and at multiple events during the project. Over 70% of the class achieved the standard at merit or excellence level.”

    Diabetes in New Zealand

    In New Zealand, it’s estimated that over 250,000 people have diabetes. Type 1 diabetes affects about 25,000 people, whereas type 2 diabetes affects over 200,000, with thousands more believed to be undiagnosed. Diabetes affects about 5% of people of European descent and is more prevalent in Pacific (15%), Māori (10%) and Asian (8%) populations. Diabetes is the cause of about half of all heart attacks, blindness, kidney failure and lower limb amputations and a third of all strokes (Diabetes NZ, 2016).

    Diabetes and lifestyle

    Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition and cannot be prevented. It occurs most often in childhood but can occur at any age. Type 1 diabetes is managed by medication, diet and exercise.

    Type 2 diabetes, for most people, can be prevented by maintaining a healthy diet and keeping active. It occurs most often in adults but is starting to affect a growing number of children and teenagers. Type 2 diabetes is managed by diet, exercise and medication. Initially, diet, exercise and weight loss may be enough to manage type 2 diabetes, but it is a progressive condition. Over time, the body produces less and less insulin so medicines and/or insulin are needed.


    The Manurewa High School Health Science Academy project received funding from the South Auckland pilot of the Participatory Science Platform (PSP) – a programme that is part of the Curious Minds initiative and funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. The PSP is currently being implemented as a pilot in three areas: South Auckland, Taranaki and Otago.

    The South Auckland pilot of the PSP is managed by COMET Auckland (Community Education Trust Auckland). COMET is a council-controlled organisation of Auckland Council and an independent charitable trust. Its role is to advance education in Auckland by supporting education and skills across the region. COMET Auckland hosts the Auckland STEM Alliance, which is leading the pilot in South Auckland. The Auckland STEM Alliance brings together businesses, educators and government.

    The government’s national strategic plan for Science in Society, A Nation of Curious Minds – He Whenua Hihiri i te Mahara, is a government initiative jointly led by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, the Ministry of Education and the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor.

    Useful links

    A passion for science profiles the work of Nicole Stevens and Manurewa High School’s Health Science Academy.

    The Diabetes New Zealand website offers information and advice about diabetes, diet and exercise.

      Published 19 January 2017 Referencing Hub articles
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