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Cell Phones and Cancer: Evaluating the Evidence to Assess Potential Association - STIRS Student Case Study

Jennifer S. Stanford, PhD
Department of Biology, Drexel University
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
jss75@drexel.edu

Abstract: In this case study, students will study the potential link between cell phones and cancer.  This is a popular topic in the lay media, which tends to present anecdotal cases to support the idea that cell phones cause cancer.  This case will challenge students to learn to effectively evaluate research data, for example: why study size is important, why it is critical to have study and control groups, how causation is determined, and what confounding variables are.  Students will be presented with anecdotal, epidemiologic and experimental data and will be asked to evaluate study designs and outcomes.  As part of this case, students will learn about the ethics of conducting research with human subjects, and why some experiments are unethical to conduct.  Students will learn in brief about the molecular changes that cause cancer, and the type of radiation emitted by cell phones.  Students will make predictions about outcomes that would suggest an association between cell phone use and cancer, and evaluate outcomes data from existing studies to determine if such an association exists.  At the end of this case, students will be expected to make evidence-based recommendations about their own cell phone use and – in light of evidence reviewed in the case – to consider the costs and benefits of funding additional research studying the potential association between cell phone use and cancer.  This is an analysis case that uses actual events.  

Use in Courses:  This case could be used in association with a variety of courses or workshops to explain topics in scientific thinking and evidence-based reasoning, including: causation versus association, experimental design, the ethics of human subject research, and the importance of sample size, among other topics.  Courses that might benefit from including these topics include first year seminar courses, general education courses or research methods courses.  The optional activities in this case could also be used as a part of a writing-intensive course.  Because the focus of the case is on cancer and radiation, it might also be of interest in courses that cover radiation and its effects on human health, such as: biology (general, cell or cancer), environmental health, epidemiology, occupational health, or physics.

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Professor Stanford was named an AAC&U STIRS Scholar in 2014 and developed this case for the STIRS program.