As biology teachers, we are continually scanning the news and social media for teachable moments that will be relevant to our students. Ordinarily, what is relevant to students in one part of the country may not be relevant to the students in another. This year, unfortunately, all biology teachers have the same, tragic, teachable moments – when the scientific community learned of a novel coronavirus, when we discovered its vector, when best mitigation practices were reported for preventing the spread of COVID-19. The public has used conflicting information to construct a narrative about community health from a range of sources, ranging from reliable science to utter nonsense. Our present situation has made excruciatingly clear the need to purposefully integrate critical thinking and lessons that teach students how to interpret scientific information. While there is debate over the best mode of instruction for students during this time, as a community of science educators this opportunity allows us to come together to reinforce these skills and provide the sagacious voice of science to ensure that they have the best information and are empowered to share it with their families and friends.

SimPandemic, by Science Buddies, uses graphs and real data to help students visualize different pandemic scenarios. The website provides preloaded data about the COVID-19 pandemic and has a “sandbox” for users to manipulate and model the impacts of multiple interventions. SimPandemic uses an agent-based model that depicts a virtual world of 100,000 simulants and provides daily information for each simulant using dozens of factors. The population is normalized to 62.9% working-aged adults who stimulate economic output.

The first graphs you will encounter show data for a population of 100,000 people with no intervention. These graphs provide information about the number of people infected, the number of people with symptoms, the number of people immune, the number of deaths, and economic output. The data for any given day can be viewed by hovering over the interactive graph. An analysis table adjacent to the graph details information about hospitalizations, deaths, and economic output based on the graph. By clicking “next” and moving to the next page, you will find pre-populated graphs for social distancing, urban populations, and rural populations. Each of these pages has a sandbox section where different parameters can be manipulated in multiple ways. Simulations can be run using any or all of the following parameters: duration (from 365 to 703 days), population statistics, disease characteristics, social distancing for each age group, business closures, use and effectiveness of personal protective equipment, testing and quarantine, therapies, a vaccine (taking into account the time it will take to develop and deliver), and travel restrictions. Every one of these parameters has multiple customizations, making it possible to closely approximate any population, from local to much larger.

One could use this tool to model and forecast the effectiveness of mitigation measures used in one’s community and predict the possible outcomes. Using this information, students could employ claim, evidence, and reasoning to support or refute the arguments regarding the effectiveness of social distancing and face coverings. Students could also use SimPandemic to generate predictive data for hospitalizations and community spread of COVID-19 to advocate for preventative measures that should be in effect until the projected date of vaccine availability.

Using this simulation with students will serve several purposes. For example, students will be able to use graphing in a way that is engaging and instantly relevant. They will also be better informed and may become the foot soldiers who help spread accurate scientific information about the virus to their homes and communities.

COVID-19 will be weighing on the minds of students and parents for a long time, and many folks are frightened and finding mixed messages in the media. The need for science literacy has never been more dire and immediate. As biology teachers, it is essential to seize this opportunity to help students understand how the COVID-19 pandemic is spreading and how everyday human actions have had and will continue to have lasting impacts. SimPandemic is an amazing tool to help with this effort.

Bonnie Nieves
Science Instructor
Millbury Memorial Junior/Senior High School
Millbury, MA 01527
bnieves@millburyschools.org