What Science Classes Are Teaching Students About Coronavirus

Mar 09, 2020

To help her eighth graders better understand how infectious diseases such as the coronavirus spread, science teacher Christine Witcher adapted a lesson from an unlikely source: a baby shower game.

The popular game, called “Don’t Say Baby,” asks each partygoer to wear a clothespin. When someone slips and says the word “baby,” their clothespin can be stolen by someone else. But in Witcher’s version, students lose their clothespin by touching their face, which health experts have strongly advised against as a way to slow transmission.

“We’ve been trying to turn it into a learning opportunity for good personal hygiene,” says Witcher, a teacher at Forest Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bellevue, Wash. “That seems to help in making it more fun and giving them some agency around it.”

Witcher is teaching science at a particularly momentous time, when the fever pitch of the coronavirus news cycle is colliding with a daily cascade of school closures, making students particularly interested in the subject. The result is playing out in science classrooms across the country as teachers look to address burning questions on hygiene and transmission and provide students with a deeper understanding of the science behind viral infections and the spread of pandemics.

New Approaches to New Topics

In rural Abingdon, Ill., high school science teacher Nicole Vick says that new approaches to science teaching over the past few years, including the introduction of new standards, has encouraged more hands-on activities and personal relevance that makes the subject more meaningful to students. She’s noticed it with the coronavirus but also other topics they’ve come across. It’s a complete sea change from when she was in school, learning mainly through passive lectures.

“With the shift in how I’m teaching, I would definitely say they’re a lot more curious to figure out exactly what’s going on,” she says of her students. “They want to get into the science and why it’s happening.”

In general, science teachers should expect to address the coronavirus in class, even if it only comes up informally, says Christine Royce, the president of the National Science Teaching Association, or NSTA, who is also a professor of teacher education at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. “It is a hot topic in the news and students obviously are going to be curious about what they’re hearing.”

But, she cautions, “It’s important to make sure that the information that’s being shared with students has come from reputable sources,” such as the World Health Organization. “Because, as we’re finding, this particular set of data is changing as we get new information.”

Reaching Across Subjects

The lack of clear data around the coronavirus can sometimes be frustrating for students, but Witcher has used the opportunity to refresh lessons she’s taught about data quality—and how having more data points provides more trustworthy information. “Right now what makes the coronavirus scary is that we just don't have that much data about it,” she tells her class. “And so as we get more and more data, and this goes on longer, we’re going to understand it better and we’re going to be able to give more definitive answers.”

At Century High School in Bismarck, N.D., biology teachers have already reviewed units on virology, says Scott Johnson, who teaches anatomy and physiology at the school. For an upcoming lesson on the respiratory system, Johnson will have students dissect a National Geographic article on how the coronavirus impacts the entire body. He also plans to introduce the Atlantic’s provocatively-headlined, but well-regarded piece “You’re Likely to Get the Coronavirus.”

Johnson’s goal isn’t to limit the discussion to the unit he’s covering, but rather to find ways to explore a wider lens and encourage deeper learning. He asks students to evaluate the sources of information they’re reading and, where possible, gets them to think about how other disciplines, such as biology or the social sciences, are involved. The idea is to get students to think like scientists and consider the sequence of questions that need to be asked and answered in order to make sense of the virus.

“NSTA would refer to this as 3D learning,” Johnson says. “It’s all based off of how science itself works by scaffolding itself to answer the next question.”

That’s also the approach favored by the Next Generation Science Standards, which were developed in part by the NSTA and currently informs science instruction in 44 states. As a topic, the coronavirus hits specific life science standards on the difference between bacterial and viral infections. But it also touches on a broader set of skills outlined in the standards, known as science and engineering practices, which cover asking questions and defining problems, as well as general information literacy and communicating complex ideas.

“It’s also hitting our ideas that reach across subjects,” Royce says. “We call them cross-cutting concepts, but they’re the broad ideas.” Think: cause and effect. What happens if we don’t cover our mouth when we cough and how does that affect others? It could also mean discussing concepts related to scale, proportion and quantity—how does the virus spread and what rate is it spreading?

Clearing Up Misconceptions

That flexibility is less helpful to teachers like Jill Ronstadt at Orange Lutheran High School in Orange, Calif. Ronstadt teaches AP Biology and, with the Advanced Placement test coming up in just two months, it’s difficult for her to justify squeezing in lessons about the coronavirus considering viruses comprise only a small portion of the test.

“It’s like you are weighing, ‘How much do I want to get into this?’” she says. “How much time do I have?” As a compromise, she’s devoting a few minutes before class starts to clear the air about misconceptions. Specifically, few of her students understand how viruses work in the body or why antibiotics are ineffective. She’s also shown them the websites for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a Johns Hopkins-developed map tracking the global spread of the virus.

In her molecular genetics class, Ronstadt plans to introduce a lesson by the popular curriculum developer Bethany Lau that looks at how the virus replicates and dives into the viral RNA genome. (The lesson is being offered by Lau for free; the password to access it is “fruitfly.”)

Lau’s lesson is just one of many cropping up around the web. On the lesson-sharing site Teachers Pay Teachers there are already more than 180 activities related to the coronavirus. Companies like BrainPOP have developed a handful of lessons for younger students. And on the NSTA blog, teacher William Reed shared a lesson on evaluating scientific and technical information from various sources and combating misconceptions.

Regardless of the curriculum, students mainly need space to process the bombardment of coronavirus news with their teachers, says Witcher, the middle school teacher in Washington. “They want to talk about it and they want to gossip about it, because that’s satisfying, right?” she says. “It helps them explore their fears and decide, ‘Am I the right level of concerned?’ That’s sort of the focus of their conversations.”

Rachel Burstein contributed research.


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