Responding to an Emerging Epidemic through Science Education

This research project will produce curricular materials designed to help students learn about viral epidemics as both a scientific and social issue. It will engage students in scientific modeling of the epidemic and in critical analyses of media and public health information about the virus. This approach helps students connect their classroom learning experiences with their lives beyond school, a key characteristic of science literacy.

Full Description: 

At this moment, there is global concern about the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and its potential to become an epidemic in the U.S. and other countries. Reports of past studies on student understanding of epidemics and how they are taught in school indicate that teachers are reticent to teach the material because the science is unclear given the emerging nature of evidence, or because they don?t understand it well themselves. Curricular resources are limited. Consequently, many students are left on their own to grapple with a potential public health emergency that could affect them and their families. The problem is further complicated by misinformation that may be spread through social media. There is less public understanding about the science of the virus and how it spreads; the risk of being infected; treatment, or, the severity of the illness. This research project will produce curricular materials designed to help students learn about viral epidemics as both a scientific and social issue. It will engage students in scientific modeling of the epidemic and in critical analyses of media and public health information about the virus. This approach helps students connect their classroom learning experiences with their lives beyond school, a key characteristic of science literacy. This project is an example of how science education can be both engaging and relevant.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina and the University of Missouri have been studying how to teach about issues at the crossroads of science and social concerns such as community health; they have developed a framework to build curriculum materials focused on student learning of such complex issues through modeling and inquiry. For this study on the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19); first, the researchers will study student responses to the epidemic in real time, collecting data on student initial understandings and concerns. Then, using this information, they will work with 7 high school science teachers familiar with their framework to build a prototype curriculum unit, and test it in classrooms in 4 high schools selected for their socio-economic and ethnic/racial diversity. The study will gather data on student interest in the epidemic, as well as how students access information about it through various forms of media, and how they vet news reports and social media. The researchers will also use pre- and post-test data to assess student learning. After this initial enactment of the curriculum materials developed to teach about the epidemic, researchers and teachers will revise the curriculum materials to make them more effective. The final products will be a curriculum unit that will be readily available and modifiable for teaching and learning about future epidemics, as well as greater understanding about how students deal with vast amounts of information about societal issues that affect their immediate lives and the science behind them.

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