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Introduction to the Special Issue on Immunology

The Science Teacher—January/February 2023 (Volume 90, Issue 3)

By Colby Tofel-Grehl and Brooke A. Whitworth

Introduction to the Special Issue on Immunology

The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the absence of needed resources for teachers to engage students in learning about infectious disease as both a socioscientific issue and a scientific phenomenon (Kafai et al. 2022). With infectious disease largely absent from the NGSS, teachers had to creatively link lessons that contextualized and examined key aspects of infectious disease education during the COVID-19 pandemic. We saw in real time the impacts of popular news, social media, and public mood on broader socioscientific behaviors such as vaccination, masking, and social distancing. We watched as people’s understanding of the nature of science (Lederman 2013) and its tentativeness played into behavior decisions to abide by mask mandates or social distancing requirements. Much of the fabric of the social contract that binds society was strained as folks grappled with a worldwide scientific event that dictated many facets of their daily life.

Given that COVID-19 appears to be here to stay, providing teachers with the best approaches to engaging young people in learning about viruses and epidemics is now a matter of public necessity. This special issue provides space for sharing current teaching strategies and tools for teaching about epidemics and viruses. We frame these issues of scientific content within the Straif-Bourgeois, Ratard, and Kretzschmar (2014) framework for infectious disease, which delineates three dimensions of epidemiology. The first dimension focuses on the biology of disease and viruses as related to individual bodies. The second dimension encompasses the epidemiology of disease with a focus on incubation periods and other temporal considerations for the spread of disease. In the third dimension, focused on infectious disease epidemiology, the framework explores the impacts of disease on communities. This framework provides a unique lens through which to frame current science education research on infectious disease.

So, what is the state of current materials and resources for teachers related to epidemiology? By examining the real-world challenges and unique opportunities that science teachers encountered during the COVID-19 pandemic, this special issue gives a fieldwide look at the available resources for teachers. For many science teachers and science teacher educators, COVID-19 made clear a need to focus on the socioscientific issues. As seen in the Ambrose, Worthington, and Hogan articles in this issue, teachers need activities to aid students in understanding the larger social importance of science and scientific issues. Another body of work focuses on developing young people’s understandings of what science is through the Nature of Science and better developing students’ abilities to distinguish science from fiction in a post-truth world. Each of these bodies of work points to a larger science education consideration.

From the experiences of COVID-19, the question also arises: How do we best support teachers in capitalizing on unexpected learning opportunities and topics outside the narrow bands set forth in the NGSS? The NGSS have had a positive effect on science education across the nation by creating a rich learning scaffold focused on engaging students in phenomena-based learning. However, certain topics (such as infectious disease or circuitry) are notably absent as distinct science content. While some of this is intentional to permit the rich, phenomena-driven approach, it has also left teachers and science teacher educators with some challenges in addressing these topics. For example, during COVID-19, as seen in the Hansen et al. article in this issue, teachers engaged in epidemiologic education through other units of study—in this case, cells. Teachers (and science teacher educators) often leverage engineering and inquiry as a cover for content they perceive as beyond the scope of the standards. 

When faced with a circumstance where a teacher wants to engage content that is less explicitly named in the NGSS, educators and researchers rely on inquiry as the standard that allows for its instruction. This does two things. First, it reinforces multiple misconceptions about the standards as gatekeepers for acceptable content—ones that likely hearken back to a world of content knowledge acquisition and formula memorization. Second, it subverts and undercuts the goals of having inquiry in the standards as it was intended.

This second issue is evident within the literature around how students have engaged with learning about infectious disease education (IDE) over the past 18 months. Rather than affording young people the opportunity to ask questions, form hypotheses, or engage in rigorous processes of scientific thinking, we see inquiry used as a catch-all for learning that is either project-based or hands-on. Although both project-based learning and hands-on learning can be wonderful opportunities for inquiry, neither ensures that inquiry takes place in an effective manner. We see this in the activities teachers have shared and published on infectious disease that reference inquiry as their sole link to the standards yet fail to engage the richness described in the NGSS around inquiry-based learning. In short, the lack of ability to address things outside the standards leads to a lesser engagement with inquiry as it becomes more a poorly implemented default than a carefully crafted learning objective.  

IDE offers a powerful examination of the core issues of science education at this point in history. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted nearly every aspect of daily life, including schooling itself, which positions IDE as a major socioscientific topic. However, it is one with no explicit link to the NGSS. Thus, teachers have made a choice either to teach about IDE outside the content mandated by the NGSS—perhaps under the cover of inquiry—or to avoid instruction on the most relevant and immediate socioscientific issue in students’ lives.

In this context, the National Science Foundation funded multiple studies related to the teaching and learning of IDE, yielding new insights into teacher practice and adaptation in response to standards that are not optimally positioned to engage relevant science content. Indeed, research on IDE learning has been present in relation to educational technologies for a long time (RiverCity [Clark et al. 2009]; Whyville [Fields et al. 2017; Kafai et al. 2022]).

When the NGSS were first introduced, there were many debates around the relative importance of various topics that were or were not included in the standards. In the intervening decade, those conversations had generally ceased. However, current events have prompted a resurgence of this discussion (Zucker and Noyce 2020). Thus, examination and discussion of how the NGSS might be understood or implemented in more adaptive ways is both timely and productive for scholars and policy makers who have a vested interest in the sufficiency or potential shortcomings of the dominant set of science education standards.


Colby Tofel-Grehl ( is an associate professor in the School of Teacher Education & Leadership, Utah State University, Logan, UT. Brooke A. Whitworth ( is an associate professor of Science Education and the Teaching and Learning PhD Program Coordinator, Clemson University, Clemson, SC.


Clark, D., B. Nelson, P. Sengupta, and C. D’Angelo. 2009. Rethinking science learning through digital games and simulations: Genres, examples, and evidence. In Learning science: Computer games, simulations, and education. Workshop sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC.

Fields, D.A., Y.B. Kafai, M.T. Giang, N. Fefferman, and J. Wong. 2017. Plagues and people: Engineering player participation and prevention in a virtual epidemic. Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games (pp. 1–10).

Kafai, Y.B., Y. Xin, D. Fields, and C. Tofel-Grehl. 2022. Teaching and learning about respiratory infectious diseases: A scoping review of interventions in K–12 education. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 59 (7): 1274–1300.

Lederman, N.G. 2013. Nature of science: Past, present, and future. In Handbook of research on science education, ed. S.K. Abell and N.G. Lederman, 845–894. London: Routledge.

Straif-Bourgeois, S., R. Ratard, and M. Kretzschmar. 2014. Infectious disease epidemiology. In Handbook of epidemiology, eds. W. Ahrens and I. Pigeot. Springer.

Zucker, A., and P. Noyce. 2020. Lessons from the pandemic about science education. Phi Delta Kappan 102 (2): 44–49.

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