When the SARS epidemic hit Hong Kong in 2002, science educator Alice Wong did not hesitate. As reported (http://learningscience.edu.hku.hk), she turned crisis into opportunity by teaching her students about the scientific research behind the headlines to acquire an active understanding of the nature of science. In the current coronavirus pandemic, ABT readers will find another such teachable moment. Here is a prime occasion to engage student interest and teach them about viruses, genetics, evolution, immunology, vaccines, epidemiology, parasite-host interactions, and the nature of scientific credibility. Such lessons can help foster an informed public who can appreciate the historical recurrence of pandemics, the incredible and rapid achievements of science, and the vital role of vaccines. The vivid memories of recent events will provide a compelling context for lessons, partly with the advantage of hindsight.

Interested teachers need only tap into the ABT archive: a treasury of lessons ready for classroom use and available online. Here is a brief set of suggestions:

“Ebola Epidemic: Using Current Events to Teach Authentic Inquiry Science,” by

Houda Darwiche & Julie R. Bokor (March 2016). Three lessons; 100 mins. Based on the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa in 2014. Students use the Centers for Disease Control website to develop background knowledge on the virus itself and then simulate the spread of an infection by mixing and sharing individual samples of fluid (one originally “infected”). This concludes as they use authentic data to map the outbreak and trace its origin. See: https://www.cpet.ufl.edu/teachers/lesson-plans-and-curricula-/.

“Solving the Mystery of an Outbreak Using the One Health Concept,” by Andrew W. Bartlow & Tanya Vickers (January 2020). 1+ class period. Situated on a farm in Australia, students divide into three different professional roles and collaborate to determine the origin of a disease, the type of pathogen, and the chain of transmission (here, the Hendra virus, transferred from wild bats to domesticated horses, and then to humans). This lesson invites discussion of how human ecological change fosters zoonotic diseases.

“The Infection Dynamics of a Hypothetical Virus in a High School: Use of an Ultraviolet Detectable Powder,” by Joan M. Baltezore & Michael G. Newbrey (February 2007). A hands-on activity, literally! Selected school stair handrails are brushed with an ultraviolet powder, which “infects” any student who touches them. As the day progresses, students in successive biology class periods monitor student “infection” rates by using a portable ultraviolet light to quickly examine their hands. Students design the sampling protocols and analyze data to gauge the cumulative spread of the “disease” over the course of the school day.

“Epidemiology—Teaching the Fundamentals,” by Donald L. McEachron & Leonard Finegold (January 2020). Explore infectious spread with computer simulations and mathematical models. For an updated model available online, see: https://www.khanacademy.org/science/health-and-medicine/current-issues-in-health-and-medicine/ebola-outbreak/pi/modelling-an-epidemic.

“An Interdisciplinary Perspective: Infectious Diseases & History,” by Jenifer Turco & Melanie Byrd (May 2001). Outline of a one-term course. This material is helpful for highlighting the frequency of major epidemics through history and the significance of their cultural consequences. The article includes handy lists of major diseases and internet sources of information, easily adapted for individual or team projects.

“Enhancing Student Learning on Emerging Infectious Diseases: An Ebola Exemplar,” by Derek Dube, Tracie M. Addy, Maria R. Teixeira, & Linda M. Iadarola (September 2018). This lesson addresses the basic biology of viruses from the perspective of a disease patient, along with possible treatments for Ebola. See: https://sciencecases.lib.buffalo.edu/files/ebola_general.pdf.

“Avian Flu,” by Ann Haley MacKenzie (November 2005). This lesson includes information on the 2004 pandemic of avian flu (H5N1 virus), now in a historical context. Although only a few hundred humans died, the fatality rate was over one-half. Here is another case documenting the ongoing risks of zoonotic pandemics.

“Vaccination: A Public Health Intervention that Changed History & is Changing with History,” by Richard A. Stein (November 2011). This lesson includes a broad historical survey of the cultural significance of vaccination that helps contextualize vaccines today. Stein also discusses the contemporary controversies about vaccine safety.

“Fake News with Real Consequences: The Effect of Cultural Identity on the Perception of Science,” by Kevin M. Bonney (November 2018). Students examine how social cues, religion, political ideologies, and even personal identities shape individual views on the safety of vaccinations. This explicitly opens reflection on the role of “cultural cognition” in interpreting science in the news.

“The COVID-19 Conundrum,” by Douglas Allchin (August 2020). This inquiry activity, with visuals available online, returns students to early 2020 and explores the credibility of various claims as the pandemic unfolded, which can now be considered with the benefit of hindsight. See: http://shipseducation.net/covid.

Remember, NABT members have free access to the whole ABT archive! Log in to the NABT website and click on “BioOne ACCESS.”

This list includes some other related resources worth considering:

  • College Board: The Spanish Flu and Its Legacy—a blend of science, policy, and ethics from the history of the devastating 1918 pandemic. See https://apcentral.collegeboard.org/pdf/spanishflu.pdf.

  • National Institutes of Health: Emerging & Re-emerging Infectious Diseases—a mystery disease investigation and an activity addressing herd immunity through computational thinking. See https://science.education.nih.gov/HighSchool/EmergingInfectiousDiseases.

  • National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science—many cases (keyword “Covid”). See https://sciencecases.lib.buffalo.edu.

  • SHiPS Resource Center: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Smallpox Inoculation in 18th-Century England—the history of the controversial introduction of smallpox variolation to Europe transformed into an inquiry case on the nature of evidence and trust. See http://shipseducation.net/modules/biol/smallpox.htm.

  • Popular books include Preston’s The Hot Zone (Ebola), Quammen’s prescient Spillover (emerging zoonotic diseases), and Johnson’s The Ghost Map (cholera in mid-nineteenth-century London).

We know that NABT members are resourceful and continually create and modify lessons to keep biology instruction current and engaging. So, please consider joining the authors featured here and share your insights through ABT.