COVID-19 presents a real-time educational opportunity

Engaging middle and high school students in learning how science happens

What do you remember about middle and high school science classes? You may remember spending a few weeks learning about what scientists do (like measuring things and the scientific method ). Then, you remember having to memorize things like the phases of mitosis , the chemical symbol of tungsten (W), and the gravitational constant (-9.81 m/s2). You may also remember doing “labs” to verify these concepts. For example, you may have shined light on an elodea plant in an aquarium and observed the carbon dioxide bubbles that form. Or you might remember looking through a light microscope to identify protists, like euglena . But did you ever have a chance to learn by actually engaging in science with investigations connected to a current event? What about an international pandemic?

The COVID-19 outbreak creates an opportunity to engage middle and high school students in multiple explorations to help them better understand how scientists create new knowledge, while applying the disciplinary content from state standards taught in K-12 schools. This post describes the development of an online course faculty at Penn State’s Center for Science and the Schools are co-developing with experts in virology, epidemiology, agent-based modeling, and public health preparedness. It will be free to use and delivered digitally so teachers can use it in their classrooms or remotely if schools offer some level of distance learning this fall.

Education Reform and “The Practices”

For several years, K-12 science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teacher educators have been encouraging teachers to have students mimic the activities of experts in the field while learning and applying the disciplinary content. Originally described as inquiry-based teaching in 1960 by Joseph Schwab, the concept of having students investigate like scientists has been around for a long time. However, it’s also been misunderstood and is rarely used effectively . In the past two decades, there has been a shift away from the focus on inquiry and an emphasis on using the discourse and practices of researchers. Most recently, education reformers in the U.S. have identified ten practices of scientists and engineers and they are included in the Next Generation Science Standards and several state standards.

Figure 1: Practices

Figure showing Education Reform and “The Practices”.

Practices like “asking questions” and “analyzing and interpreting data” are found in the traditional scientific method. However, the scientific method is a myth . It oversimplifies a process whose goal is to convince the field that the claims are true. The traditional scientific method also limits methodology to only hypothesis-driven investigations that can be achieved using controlled experiments . In many fields, hypotheses are not necessary and controlled experiments are not possible.

Engaging precollege learners in the practices of experts helps them understand how scientific knowledge is created , and it helps them be more savvy consumers of science and science reporting. However, both teachers and teacher educators struggle with identifying authentic practices that can be modified for classroom use, because their jobs rarely include interactions with experts in science and engineering. Teachers have few opportunities to become familiar with technical research and associated practices as well as effective pedagogical approaches for incorporating these practices into K-12 curriculum and instruction.

Center for Science and the Schools (CSATS)

The Center for Science and the Schools (CSATS) is housed in the College of Education at Penn State and its mission is to collaborate with STEM researchers to develop, implement, evaluate, and disseminate K-12 in-service teacher professional development programs. The goal of these programs is to support teachers in learning and applying new content knowledge by engaging them in the actual practices of scientists and engineers involved in cutting-edge research at Penn State. CSATS faculty leverage their own classroom teaching experience, their understanding of Pennsylvania education systems, and their knowledge of preferred pedagogies in science education to craft these learning experiences for teachers. By using the science and engineering research as a context for focusing on the specific practices that researchers use to do their daily work, we create learning activities that are both accessible to teachers and their students and are modifiable for the unique learning environments in which teachers work.

An Online Course on COVID-19

The development of an online course for Pennsylvania middle and high school students addresses two needs in STEM education. First, it gives students experience in understanding how new science knowledge is created by having them participate in some of the practices used by experts working on COVID-19. Most of the content taught in science classes has been settled for at least 50 years, but the practices used in research and the application of the content are both very applicable to this situation. Second, it responds to a need for high quality learning activities that can be taught and completed online. When schools abruptly closed due to the pandemic, districts in Pennsylvania scrambled to figure out how to equitably deliver high-quality learning activities remotely. Part of the challenge is access to the internet for those in low-income and remote settings, but another challenge is that teachers cannot rely on students having materials with which to do activities. Our course uses data and tools that are available through a free website to learn about COVID-19 through the lenses of three distinct fields, each with different goals and practices used to accomplish them.

Module 1: Virology

The course begins with a case study of a patient in a Chinese hospital who exhibits pneumonia-like symptoms but whose tests indicate a novel infection. The primary role of virologists in this case is to isolate, grow, and characterize the virus. This work depends on the scientist knowing and understanding a lot of the material typically taught in precollege life science courses, and the practices they use can be paralleled for K-12 learners. Tiffany Lewis, faculty at CSATS, is leading the development of this module with scientist Anthony Schmitt, professor of molecular virology.

A virus is an anomaly in our world. Technically, viruses are not living, because they only replicate within the cells of a host organism. But just because they are not defined as a living organism by biologists doesn’t mean they are inconsequential! One system classifies them based on their genetic material and the processes in which it needs to reproduce. The classification of a novel virus can be accomplished by finding the composition (“sequence”) of the genetic material and comparing it to known viral sequences. The sequence of the current novel virus that causes the disease COVID-19 is classified as a coronavirus, and since its sequence matched closely (>75%) with the SARS-CoV virus that caused the SARS outbreak of 2003, the virus was named SARS-CoV-2. Scientists then verified the classification by using electron microscopy, and found the virus had spikes on the surface , a characteristic found in coronaviruses. Students in this activity will be able to use publicly available genetic sequences and software that will identify the commonality between the sequences. By looking at published electron micrographs of the virus that causes COVID-19, and a library of ones with which to compare, students will be able to identify SARS-CoV-2 as a coronavirus based on corroborating lines of evidence.

Mutations occur when there are changes in the genetic material during replication. There are three possible outcomes from mutations for the organism (or virus): 1) the mutation will cause no change, or at least does not give it a competitive advantage or disadvantage; 2) the mutation causes a competitive disadvantage or; 3) the mutation confers a competitive advantage causing the mutated DNA to be passed along to future generations. The competitive advantage also means that eventually more and more of that species will share that altered genetic material and the previous version will eventually be in the minority (or eliminated). This is natural selection in a nutshell.

Tracking these mutations offer a lot of insights to those studying viruses. First, identifying the areas of the genome that rarely change (“conserved regions”) suggest that the region is important for the virus to successfully reproduce. Mutations can also give scientists clues to how and where the disease spreads. Students will use sequences obtained from BLAST to investigate the conserved regions like the S protein that is involved in invading a host cell, while also investigating the mutations that have occurred over the last few months to watch how the virus has spread around the world using a web-based and freely available tool called Nextstrain.

The last section of this module has the students investigate the design, development, and testing of vaccines. This section will delve into the types of vaccines, how candidates are selected, tested, and why the process takes so long. Together, this module combines the practices of virologists trying to learn about a new pathogen with content knowledge taught in secondary life science classes like genetics, evolution, natural selection, and viruses.

Module 2 – Epidemiological modeling

While virology research is focused on better characterizing and understanding the virus itself, epidemiology studies the distribution and determinants of health events in populations and applying that knowledge to the control of health problems. One of the practices we chose to emphasize in this module is developing and using models . We chose to use a free, online agent-based modeling software called NetLogo to create a model that is primarily interested in the number ofsusceptible, infected, and recovered individuals as a function of time. This model, used in investigating disease spread is known as the SIR Model . There are several levels of complexity with these models, but the primary variables that are considered are the infectious status of the individuals, the likelihood of the individuals interacting and the likelihood of the virus being transmitted during the interaction. The virus is only spread if an interaction happens and the virus can get from one person to another susceptible person.

These models are used in three ways: to estimate the burden (how many), to identify trends (estimating burden multiple times), and to project forward and make recommendations. In this first iteration of the course, the focus is on Pennsylvania. The population density affects the probability of interaction, and the geographic location of the initial infection is also important in explaining why COVID-19 has spread like it has in Pennsylvania. Students will be able to run different scenarios, including varying the probabilities of infection, of interaction, and of death. This will lead to a measurement of RO , an important indication of how infectious a disease is. Then, students will use the model to consider the trends likely to be observed due to non-medical interventions like hand washing or social distancing. Last, students will use scenarios to consider the combinations of interventions that should be used. This last activity relies on balancing tradeoffs in addition to reading outputs of models. Policy makers benefit from using models but also must decide if adding additional measures have diminishing returns and are therefore not worth imposing.

Students in this section will gain first-hand experience in using models in the ways epidemiologists do and will better understand the variables that impact disease spread and therefore affect public policy. In addition to the aspects of human health related to immunity, students will use concepts of probability and will analyze data of a complex set of scenarios. This module is co-lead by Amber Cesare, faculty at CSATS and Kit Martin at Northwestern University in consultation with Matthew Ferrari , Associate Professor of Biology at Penn State.

Module 3 – Public Health Preparedness

Another important group of people working hard on the pandemic is in public health preparedness . Their activities include identifying those populations among us that are most at risk and in mobilizing action locally to support them. In this module, students will better understand the rationale of interventions to flatten the curve by calculating, using publicly available data, the rate of infection at which their county’s healthcare system would be at full capacity for the illness.

Few Pennsylvania school districts have curriculum focused on the students’ local area. The first activity in this module involves using online tools to learn more about their own area and identify the vulnerabilities (with respect to COVID-19) of local hospitals. Students will first search the number and demographics of residents in their county. Then, using the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data , they can explore a number of important aspects of the outbreak, including hospitalization rate by state. By using that data, in addition to the Pennsylvania Hospital Preparedness Dashboard , students will be able to use simple math to calculate at which infection level will tax the local healthcare resources.

Students will also learn how they can act locally to support those most vulnerable. These groups are not only important in the event of a pandemic (which only happen approximately every 100 years), but in many disasters that are natural or man-made. One example of a group the students can join is the youth programs by the American Red Cross . The last activity will engage students in the designing a basic disaster supply kit. This activity will require the students to consider the types of emergencies that may arise and the things that should be included in a durable and easily accessible kit.

Matt Johnson leads the development of this module, in collaboration with Eugene Lengerich , a professor of public health sciences at Penn State. Its emphasis is on the students learning more about the unique conditions of their area and identifying the vulnerabilities that exist there in a way help them think about and prepare to act in helpful ways.

The three-module course is set to be released for pilot testing with a group of teachers in mid-July with the intention of rolling it out to all of Pennsylvania by the beginning of the academic year.

Article Topics: education, innovation, technology
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