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Current Science Classroom


Pandemic diseases have had far-reaching impacts on the story of our species. From the Spanish flu to smallpox, widespread illnesses have changed the course of history and toppled civilizations. Even today, epidemics have a major impact on travel and world commerce. The recent novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, continues to wreak havoc. Such events often saturate the news, providing teachers with a current and engaging topic for their students to learn not only about key biology concepts, but about their personal health as well. 

Giving your students the bug to learn is easy enough; few kids are not interested in the gross and bizarre. But high schoolers’ curiosity is also piqued by what is seen as taboo, which is why starting with responses to such outbreaks can be even more captivating. Not every government is willing or able to admit its population has a serious health crisis; some will go to great, even unethical, lengths to keep things quiet. The coronavirus outbreak specifically has many interesting subplots that you can explore before you connect to your curriculum. See William Reed’s excellent lesson in this issue for a detailed look at the many subplots surrounding the Wuhan outbreak.

Evolution is a great subject for incorporating a theme on diseases. Case studies on MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) can show students how natural selection works in real-time. PBS Nova has a unit that models how populations can develop resistance to antibiotics and how bacteria can acquire new genes through conjugation. Connecting this back to your unit on heredity and the molecular components to genetic variability will be key, as this is the driver of variation and natural selection. 

The immune system itself is generally no longer a core piece of science curriculum, however, you can use the immune system to teach about other key topics, such as cell membranes. You can use vaccinations to teach about herd immunity. Even studying diseases that do not affect humans such as white-nose syndrome in bats or Dutch Elm disease can teach about dispersal patterns in a population. 

Savvy teachers can also make this a cross-curriculum unit with a history teacher who is willing to be your partner. By asking what unit students will be learning in their history classes, you can tailor your case study to the disease that made the biggest impact in that timeframe. For example, if your students will be learning about early America, make smallpox your theme. Are the kids about to start a unit on World War I? Craft your lesson plans around Spanish flu, which killed at least five times more people than the war itself. Cholera epidemics have plagued cities for hundreds of years, and could likely be paired with a multitude of historical eras. 

Whatever disease you choose to discuss, be sure to use the University of Buffalo’s case study library, which has dozens of activities and readings on almost every outbreak. This unit is also a perfect time to build your students’ spatial skills. One of the best activities for this is National Geographic’s Mapping the Cholera Epidemic of 1854 activity, where students use ArcGIS to create a heat map using actual data from John Snow’s famous study, then creating a visual representation for their findings. PBL Works also has a unit on how to prevent infectious diseases that’s free when you register an account. 

There are great video resources that are free and can be very engaging for your students. The Amoeba Sisters have a lot of fun clips and Crash Course has an entire series dedicated to the immune system. My personal favorite is Gross Science, a PBS digital series hosted and produced by Anna Rothschild that looks at all sorts of weird and icky aspects of our world. Students also would be well served with reading all or part of I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong, which delves into the surprising world of your microbiome and how your body manages the bacteria and fungi that live with and inside you (spoiler alert: how you are less you than you think you are). The Centers for Disease Control also has great resources for giving your students exposure to different careers in science that relate to both public health and epidemiology. 

When you do start your unit on diseases, remember that some students may have a personal experience with being gravely ill, either with themselves or a loved one. Make sure to respect their stories while you are educating them on public health. No doubt they will need the knowledge for the future.

Chris AndersonChris Anderson (; @TheScienceJedi) is a science instructional coach for the Hamilton County ESC.

Biology Life Science Technology High School

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