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Teaching About Vaccines

By Debra Shapiro

Teaching About Vaccines

Though he may not be teaching biology this school year, James Stewart, a science teacher at Cambridge-South Dorchester High School in Cambridge, Maryland, plans to teach about vaccines in his environmental science class. “In [11th-grade] environmental science, I talk about population dynamics, public health, and immunology. Vaccinations have [connections] to other health issues. I like to incorporate the effects on human life,” he relates.

“My position as a teacher is to acknowledge viewpoints and present facts. [As I do when teaching about evolution], I don’t tell students what to believe. I present facts and let them make the determination…I give students examples and let them explore the why and how. I have students look for current information and give them a question to research and get them engaged,” Stewart maintains. 

In this time of the coronavirus pandemic, he says his students can explore answers to questions such as “Why don’t we have a [COVID-19] vaccine now? What do we need to know to get it?”

Some students “have picked up information from the news. I encourage them to look at the research behind vaccines, understand the myths behind it,” he explains. For example, “some celebrities [have expressed] their viewpoint [about vaccines being harmful], but the facts speak differently,” he contends. “[I ask students], ‘What does the data say?’”

“I always teach about vaccines. It is even more essential that our youth are taught the truth about science as early on as possible,” says Judith Jones, a high school science teacher in West Des Moines, Iowa. “It used to be a rarity to have unvaccinated students. It’s more commonplace now,” she observes.

“We still are fighting against the consequences of misinformation,” Jones contends. By teaching students about “the false narrative about vaccines” during their teenage years, “I can reach their families” once students become adults and have their own children, she contends. 

“I also use the damage done to a person’s reputation and the reputation of science as a whole as my examples of the severe consequences of misconduct/dishonesty/bias in experimentation and data collection/reporting,” Jones relates, citing disgraced British ex-physician Andrew Wakefield, whose discredited paper linked vaccines to autism. 

“I’ve found there isn’t as much room in our curriculum to teach about the human body and systems because [that content] has been moved to the middle level,” she points out, “so it’s not as common to teach about vaccines in high school biology. We can pull it in with the standard on hierarchy in body systems...Teachers are finding ways to bring it in.”

Jones adds, “When I talk about microorganisms, I can incorporate vaccines. You can talk about coronavirus in any class [by] bringing in current events. I will use COVID-19 as an anchor phenomenon because of its impact on all of our lives.”

As more data on the virus is collected, “what we thought was true may no longer be true. Updating a hypothesis based on new data is a scientist practice,” and teaching about it offers “a window into what scientists do all the time,” Jones observes. During the pandemic, “we’re watching this process live. Parents may be frustrated because they think the first answer they heard from scientists is the answer, but with more data, we have to alter our answer.” She adds, “My students tell me they have different kinds of conversations at home because of what they learned in class. We’re now teaching about the scientific engineering and design process as it happens in a laboratory setting in the classroom. This is new.”

Jones advises educators who are new to teaching about vaccines to “know your community. If it has a lot of non-vaccinators, find out why so you can be prepared for those conversations, and model that behavior for students as well. This makes it easier for students to have those conversations at home.”

This year, Jones says, “I’d like to add more about how vaccines are developed. So many quality resources will be available, I hope. I’m looking forward to using them.”

Jeffrey Schmid, biology teacher at Two Rivers High School in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, says, “As part of a Public Health unit for my Pathology class, I use a set of lessons. One is Protecting the Herd from the NIH [National Institutes of Health’s Curriculum Supplement] Emerging and Re-Emerging Infectious Diseases, which teaches about herd immunity. I modified it this semester to use this Annenberg Foundation simulation  instead of the in-class disease spread simulation usually used. I also had [students] use the Herd Immunity Simulation on the NIH site to figure out the [percentage] needed to get herd immunity for COVID-19. I then use a modified version of a lesson from the NIH [Curriculum Supplement] Bioethics, which asks students to look at data about vaccines and develop a state vaccination policy. 

“After a different lesson, we watch parts of [the] Disease Warriors [program in the PBS series] Rx for Survival, which describes the polio vaccination campaign in India, along with what they did with smallpox and hope [to do] for HIV. If time permits, I also [teach the] Tragic Choices: Autism, Measles, and the MMR Vaccine case study from the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science about the Wakefield study. I then show some other graphs that show a link with various [conditions] and autism to discuss that correlation is not causation.”

Schmid’s Pathology course is for juniors and seniors and covers all human diseases, with units on bacterial diseases, viruses, fungi, parasites, and genetics. This is followed by “a biology unit, then one on body diseases, which has diseases that fall under more than one category. The last unit is Public Health. During the first year, we watched the movie Outbreak,” he relates. 

One activity Schmid’s students do is write state regulations about vaccinations. “We talk about the chance the vaccine will help people versus the chance the disease will harm people…Students learn ‘It’s not just about me; it’s about everyone else.’ They realize that while vaccines are helping the individual, they are also helping vulnerable people [who] cannot get vaccinated and help control the spread and economic costs of a disease,” he explains.

“I teach most in-depth on vaccines in my Human Anatomy course, as we go into a great deal of detail on the immune system. However, this year with the leading COVID-19 vaccine being an mRNA vaccine, I added that to my unit on DNA/RNA/protein synthesis in my sophomore biology course,” says Jordan Smith, Teacher of Natural Sciences at St. Patrick Catholic School in Portland, Michigan. He says he has found that “at the high school level, students don’t know a lot about the immune system and body systems. It’s an abstract concept that I make relevant for students.”

The mRNA vaccines involve “cutting-edge technology” and are “a new vaccine type that is least understood by people,” Smith contends, adding, “mRNA is promising because we have the technology to artificially print RNA without cell cultures and injecting eggs with a live virus.” He notes that “mRNA has been used in veterinary vaccines” and in research on a “cancer vaccine—the idea of mRNA that the body can use to produce molecules from the surface of a cancer cell. In the spring, I will expose my sophomore biology students to that application of mRNA, a case study example.”

Two resources Smith recommends are an article “pertaining to the variety of vaccine types being pursued for COVID-19 ” and “this video from TED-Ed [explaining] more generally how vaccines work.”

He advises teachers not to shy away from teaching about vaccines. “High school students are willing to listen to a trusted adult and will see you as a reliable source of information. There’s never been a more important time to be good at what we do, to help our students understand how science works and inspire them to get into science themselves.”

“My goal is to help [students] become health care consumers and understand how things work, how to talk to a physician and understand the answers,” says Casey Milender, a science teacher at Hanover High School in Hanover, New Hampshire. “I try to focus on the practical. In high school, the focus is on content and facts, but we [also] need to teach why [they’re] important, why it matters” to students, she contends.

“In science, we look at the parts and functions of the respiratory system, then the physiology of COVID-19, what it does to your tissues and why it affects people differently,” she explains.

“One of the explanations for the anti-vaccine movement is that society has not had to suffer through the fear and tragedy that these diseases caused. In 1918, people could see the suffering [caused by the Spanish flu]. In 2020, we’re removed from it; we don’t see how it’s affecting people,” Milender contends. “[Then there’s the] indestructible nature of the teenage mind: They think it won’t happen to them, and they’re not into rules [like social distancing]. In China, elementary students wear hats with antennas that help them determine how far to distance themselves from others.”

“Students all know about taking vitamin C for a cold, but that has been disproven years ago,” Milender points out. “They need to think critically about what they hear, think beyond the news…There are so many places to access information; how can we know what’s accurate? I try to present ideas from different sources so they can see the information overlaps,” she maintains.

“Last year during the measles outbreak, I had my A&P [anatomy and physiology] students watch the documentary Hilleman: A Perilous Quest to Save the World's Children; it is well worth its 66 minutes! My school purchased a copy of this earlier in the year, so I used this as the precursor to having my students research the diseases that we now have vaccines for,” Milender reports. She also uses Vaccines—Calling the Shots from the PBS science series NOVA. “It talks about the benefits of vaccines and includes an understanding of herd immunity,” she notes. 

“It’s all about making anatomy and physiology more real,” Milender concludes. “At the end of the unit, all of my students were strong vaccine supporters!”  


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