Skip to main content

special issue

It’s Worth a Shot

Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information on Viruses and Vaccines

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

By Kristin Ambrose

It’s Worth a Shot

Socio-scientific issues are real scientific challenges that are socially relevant, such as climate change, water pollution, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The recent pandemic brought to light one socio-scientific issue of trusting the media or other online sources for information over credible scientific sources. One way this lack of trust can be addressed is by helping citizens understand the fundamentals of epidemiology. The high school biology unit discussed in this article was designed to address one of those fundamentals: how vaccines work. 

Background on vaccines

Three types of vaccines are discussed in this unit: live vaccines, inactivated vaccines, and mRNA vaccines. Live vaccines contain a live pathogen that has been weakened in a laboratory environment. The injected virus enters cells and replicates, causing a small infection that builds immunity. Examples of this type of vaccine include measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR), poliovirus, and chicken pox. This type of vaccine is highly effective but isn’t suitable for people with weakened immune systems, such as those with cancer, HIV, or organ transplants, as they might not be able to fight off the infection (Wodi and Morelli 2021).

Inactivated vaccines contain either a dead virus or parts of a virus, such as the vaccines for tetanus, influenza, and rabies. These virus particles do not infect the cells; instead, a chemical compound called an adjuvant is added to the vaccine to produce a strong immune response, which boosts the effectiveness of a vaccine. These types of vaccines can cause more local reactions (e.g., pain at the injection site) and more systemic reactions (e.g., fever and body aches) than non-adjuvanted vaccines. Inactivated vaccines need booster shots to keep the immunity high and are safe for people with weakened immune systems (Wodi and Morelli 2021).

The newest type of vaccine is the mRNA vaccine, now available after years of testing (see a 2012 study of an mRNA influenza vaccine by Petsch et. al. and a 2016 study of an mRNA rabies vaccine by Schnee et. al.). The Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are the first mRNA vaccines to be FDA approved. These vaccines contain a strand of mRNA that codes for a viral antigen. Once the mRNA enters a cell, ribosomes in the cytoplasm translate it into the antigen protein and the antigen is put on the surface of the cell. T-cells circulating in the body find the viral antigen and identify it as dangerous, then B-cells make antibodies matching the antigen. This type of vaccine needs a booster shot and is also safe for people with weakened immune systems (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] 2022).

Overview of virus and vaccine unit

In this unit, high school biology students researched a specific virus and vaccine, and they created a presentation to teach the class. Students specifically created poster presentations, but digital presentations are also acceptable. The presentation contained information about the virus, how it spreads, the vaccine, who should and should not take it, when it is recommended to be taken, how it invokes an immune response on a cellular level, and what role protein synthesis plays in the vaccine.

As students read and discussed viruses and vaccines, they learned how viruses use their antigens to enter cells, how viruses use cells to make more viruses, and how three main types of vaccines help prevent infection (live vaccine, inactivated vaccine, mRNA vaccine).

Lesson 1: How do viruses enter cells and replicate?

The first lesson addressed the question “How do viruses enter cells and replicate?” Students were asked to brainstorm behaviors or characteristics that make us more vulnerable to infection or that protect us from infection and add them to a Jamboard. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, this was a fairly simple task and many of the answers reflected what students had learned over the past two years (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Student responses on Jamboard.

Student responses on Jamboard.

After everyone posted their ideas, we had a class discussion about the first line of defense that our bodies have: skin, mucus, stomach acid, and ear wax. We then related it back to the ideas they posted. The students then joined a partner with whom they worked for the remainder of the unit. Each partner had an article to read and discuss. Partner 1 read “Intro to Viruses” from Khan Academy (see Online Connections) searching for answers to how viruses and bacteria are different, what the basic structure of a virus is, and what the life cycle of a virus is. Partner 2 read “Animal and Human Viruses” by Khan Academy (see Online Connections) and “Viruses” by CK12 (see Online Connections) and searched for how viruses infect cells, whether viruses are alive, and how viruses replicate. After both partners read their articles, they shared what they learned with each other.

After everyone had shared information, we discussed the answers as a class and watched “A Virus Attacks a Cell” by Vaccine Makers Project (see Online Connections) to see a virus using its antigens to enter a cell. Students received a graphic of the life cycle of polio and watched “How Do Viruses Reproduce?” by Vaccine Makers Project (see Online Connections). They used a storyboard template to note the steps of viral replication for polio. Afterward, they analyzed a graph of polio cases in the United States from 1910 to 2019 from “Our World in Data” (see Online Connections). They looked for trends, predicted when they thought the vaccine was introduced, and hypothesized why the death toll in 1910 increased with the number of cases, but it did not increase in 1950. Then we compared the data to a graph of polio cases in Pakistan from 1980 to 2019. We concluded the first lesson with a class discussion about what polio is and possible explanations for why it is still present in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Lesson 2: How does our immune system respond when infected?

To begin, students memorized pictures of four viruses in 30 seconds. Then students attempted to name the virus when pictures flashed on a screen. From this, we asked students what they used to memorize the viruses, and they replied that they memorized the spikes or antigens. Our response was, “That’s exactly what your white blood cells do, but they don’t have eyes. So how do you think it works?” The students responded that they must feel the antigens. Students then paired up, with Partner 1 reading about T-cells and Partner 2 reading about B-cells from “Viral Attack” by Ask a Biologist (see Online Connections). Students were reading to understand the key terms (see Figure 2).

Figure 2

Key terms.

T-Cells: white blood cells that circulate around the body looking for infected cells

B-Cells: white blood cells that memorize the antigens of viruses to create antibodies

Antibodies: proteins that bind to viral antigens and keep them from infecting cells

Antigen/Spike: “flags” that are unique to each virus and are used to infect cells

After reading, partners talked about what they learned. After learning about T-cells and B-cells, we played the Immune System Game from Ellen McHenry (see Online Connections) in which students played life-sized chess to gain a better understanding of how T-cells and B-cells work together to fight pathogens. Students were given roles of B-cells, T-cells, or pathogens. In order to destroy a pathogen, the “B-cell” student first had to move beside the “pathogen” student and tag them with an antigen card. Then the “T-cell” student had to move and capture the tagged “pathogen” student by making it to their chess square. “B-cell” and “T-cell” students had to coordinate their “attacks” to rid the body of pathogens all while the “pathogen” students were spreading. (Figure 3) We ended the lesson by watching “How Do Vaccines Work’’ from TED-Ed (see Online Connections).

Figure 3
Students playing The Immune System Game.

Students playing The Immune System Game.

Lesson 3: Research

Students started the day by watching two videos: “How Do Antibodies Work” from Vaccine Makers Project and “Vaccines 101: How Vaccines Work” by Nature Video (see Online Connections). Students and their partners were given one of seven viruses to research: measles, mumps, rubella, influenza, hepatitis B, rabies, or COVID-19. Students researched the disease and its vaccine type using credible sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), Johns Hopkins University, etc. They created a presentation with information about the virus and how its vaccine builds immunity at a cellular level. Students answered the following questions:

  • How does the virus spread?
  • What are the symptoms of the virus?
  • How common is the virus? (statistical number)
  • What does the virus look like? (include picture with antigens shown)
  • When is the vaccine recommended by the CDC?
  • How often does the booster for the vaccine need to be taken?
  • Who should not receive the vaccine?
  • How does the vaccine work on a cellular level? (Be specific about the type of vaccine and how it invokes an immune response)
  • What role does protein synthesis play in the vaccine?
  • What is the vaccine efficacy or effectiveness?
  • Does the vaccine do any of the following:
  • Change the host cell’s DNA?
  • Give the person the disease?
  • Students were given two class periods to research and make the presentation while the teacher facilitated and helped with understanding.

Lesson 4: Presentation day

We started the lesson by discussing five presentation skills to focus on: speaking clearly and loudly, making eye contact with the class, talking at an appropriate pace, demonstrating understanding of the material, and demonstrating evidence of rehearsing. We shared good and poor examples of each characteristic. Partners then had 15 minutes to rehearse their presentations (Figure 4). While the students presented their projects, their classmates provided peer feedback using feedback forms (Figure 5).

Figure 4
Poster presentations made by student groups.

Poster presentations made by student groups.

Figure 5
Peer feedback forms.

Peer feedback forms.

After the presentations concluded, we asked the class to reflect on the presentations. Did any vaccines change the host cell’s DNA? Did any vaccines cause illness in the patient? What were some differences between the vaccine types regarding how often boosters need to be given? Which vaccine type had the most people who were not able to take it? We chose these questions because we felt they addressed some common misconceptions about vaccines, especially the COVID-19 vaccine. Finally, students completed a review and reflection on Google Forms. They reviewed their partner and how well they worked together. Then they reflected on which science and engineering practices (SEP) and crosscutting concepts (CCC) they used during this unit. We had previously discussed the SEPs and CCCs and what each of them means. Students pulled from a checklist which ones they used and offered a short explanation of their thinking. The teacher used this information to help determine if the lesson objectives were met. The rubric for grading the presentations can be found in the Online Connections resources.


This virus and vaccine unit was a great way for students to connect to a current socio-scientific issue. Based on reflections at the end of the unit, students felt that they fully used the obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information, and analyzing and interpreting data SEPs in this unit. Students also felt they used the cause and effect and structure and function crosscutting concepts. Being allowed the freedom to research, synthesize, and communicate information from literature they read made students feel like they were doing real scientific research, which they were! 

This unit came with a few challenges. We had a few groups that asked not to have the COVID-19 virus because they were tired of hearing about it. However, we also had groups that specifically asked for it because they wanted to learn more about the vaccine they had taken. 

The second challenge we faced was difficult comments or questions from students. We treated them like actual scientific questions. When a student asked or claimed something about a disease or vaccine, the student and teacher researched it together on the spot to find the correct answer. The research separated the opinion from the answer. It no longer appeared to the student that the teacher was saying what they believed, but instead, the research showed both of them the answer. Then if someone else had the same question, the student, rather than the teacher, was encouraged to answer the question to reinforce the learning that had taken place. By using this technique, we were able to demonstrate the need to understand science and conduct credible research instead of believing rumors and misinformation.

Online Connections

Animal & human viruses, Khan Academy:

How do vaccines work, TED-Ed:

Intro to viruses, Khan Academy:

Nature Video:

Our World In Data:


The Immune System Game, Ellen McHenry:

Viruses, CK-12 Foundation:

Viral Attack, Ask a Biologist:

Vaccine Makers Project videos:

Kristin Ambrose ( is biology teacher at Walhalla High School, Walhalla, SC and a doctoral student at Clemson University, Clemson, SC.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2022, January 4. Understanding how COVID-19 vaccines work.

Petsch, B., M. Schnee, A.B. Vogel, E. Lange, B. Hoffmann, D. Voss, … T. Kramps. 2012. Protective efficacy of in vitro synthesized, specific mRNA vaccines against influenza A virus infection. Nature Biotechnology 30 (12): 1210–1216.

Schnee, M., A.B. Vogel, D. Voss, B. Petsch, P. Baumhof, T. Kramps, and L. Stitz. 2016. An mRNA vaccine encoding rabies virus glycoprotein induces protection against lethal infection in mice and correlates of protection in adult and newborn pigs. PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases 10 (6): e0004746.

Wodi, A.P., and V. Morelli. 2021. Principles of vaccination. Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases (14th ed.). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Biology Crosscutting Concepts Literacy News Science and Engineering Practices Three-Dimensional Learning High School

Asset 2