One way to improve hand-washing among schoolchildren and help them advocate for better hand hygiene at home: show them that cleaning hands can be fun.

Stephanie Pasewaldt discovered this during her research project, which brought a hand-washing curriculum and group hand-washing stations to two schools in Kenya and Uganda last summer. She shared her project’s successes during the Tuesday APHA Annual Meeting session, “Special Panel on Student-Led Global Health Projects.”

“I thought to myself, ‘what is even feasible to be a project to help students in these schools?’” said Pasewaldt, who recently completed undergraduate studies in public health and is applying to MPH programs. Her curriculum was based on the UNICEF Save the Children model. She showed a video of one group of schoolchildren during their “hand-washing march” through town, when they gleefully chanted “wash your hands!”

A key to the program’s success, she told attendees, was that before introducing hand-washing education, local construction workers built hand-washing stations at the schools, where the kids could wash their hands every day before lunch. One activity had the children making paper “success chains” that linked hand-washing to less illness to better grades to a better life.

Based on some of the quotes Pasewaldt shared from study participants, the new hand-washing habits were being passed on at home, too. One student said, “I watched my mom clean my new sister and forget to wash her hands after. I told her what I learned in school, and then she washed her hands.” Another said, “My brother almost ate before washing his hands and I said, ‘No! No! No!’”

Fellow session presenter Baraka Muvuka, a PhD candidate at the University of Louisville, shared results of a small study conducted in a mining town in Ghana, where women reported concerns about water quality and a lack of access to care, among other problems. Alex Adia, an MPH student at the Brown University School of Public Health, spoke about his study on attitudes and decisions about HIV testing among men who have sex with men in the Philippines.

Almost as fascinating as the research presented, the reasons the students chose their areas of study also struck a chord. Asos Mahmood, a PhD candidate at the University of Memphis, worked as a hospital physician in his native Iraq and while there saw a steady stream of patient with burn injuries.

“Their pain kind of touched my heart,” said Mahmood, whose study of burn injuries in the Kurdistan region illustrated the significant need for more research on burn victims and injury risk in developing countries.

Here’s to all the public health students out there striving to make the world a better place. Keep up the good work.

Read more about this story in the January 2019 issue of The Nation’s Health.