Shifting Science Instruction to the Coronavirus: New Activities, Units

By Catherine Gewertz — April 21, 2020 4 min read
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Even as teachers scramble to transition to distance-learning, a small group of science teachers in Missouri are using the coronavirus as a teachable moment that’s aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards.

Working with researchers from two universities, nine teachers designed high school science activities they hope will accomplish two things at once. Students will get the chance to study a natural phenomenon that’s meaningful in their lives—a key aim of the NGSS—and they’ll also get to process the pandemic’s impact on their lives.

Currently, the group has developed four activities. One is a simulation that lets students change the percentage of people who are practicing social distancing to see what the impact would be on coronavirus infection rates. Another activity walks students through the creation of a mathematical model for the spread of the virus. There are also “system thinking tools,” like a star-shaped organizer, to help students summarize the science and societal impacts of the coronavirus, and a set of media literacy activities about the disease.

The researchers have gathered the instructional activities onto a website that’s a work in progress: They’re adding more as they go. The teachers are using the activities with their students now, virtually, and they’ll refine them, based on their experiences this spring, and expand on the work in the fall.

The team aims to create lessons that not only draw on the NGSS’ emphasis on relevant natural phenomena, but also its vision of instruction that draws students into developing their own questions about those phenomena, and designing experiments, models and other activities to help them uncover answers.

Jumping on an Opportunity

Troy Sadler, a professor of experiential learning at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, is leading the project, along with Patricia Friedrichsen and Laura Zangori, professor and assistant professor, respectively, at the University of Missouri. To support the project, they secured a $200,000 grant from the National Science’s Foundation’s “rapid response research” program, which is designed to support urgent research proposals.

The coronavirus activities grew out of an ongoing project the team runs, in which they’ve developed model-oriented science units grounded in current issues that are of interest to students.

“We’ve been teaching an issue-based approach for the last five years, and [coronavirus] was certainly an interesting issue,” Friedrichsen said. “The science is there, but it’s embedded in economics and politics. It’s a great way to support systems-level thinking in students as well as helping them understand the science.”

Nine teachers who’d worked with the research team before gathered for a professional-development session by Zoom in late March,

ready to start brainstorming instructional activities. But they’d expressed some uncertainty about whether teaching about coronavirus was wise. Would it be upsetting for students?

In response, the research team sought the advice of University of Missouri pediatric psychologist Dawn Huber, and brought her into the PD session, Friedrichsen said. “She told us that that avoidance is never a solution, but informing students and helping them understanding what’s going on is the best way to support their mental health,” Friedrichsen said.

Simulating a Virus Spread

Teachers are using the activities in different ways, adding direct instruction, discussion prompts, and other pieces to build the activities into lessons or units. Christy Darter, who teaches microbiology in Raytown, Mo., started the simulation with a screencast so students could listen to her give instructions on how to use the tool while they watched her, virtually, doing so herself on her own laptop. (Her screencast for the math modeling activity is here.) Then students ran the simulation on their own, and used a Google Form she supplied to reflect on the experience.

Based on what they’d learned, did they think stay-at-home orders are a good idea? Why? She asked them to describe the ways social distancing plays out in their lives, and whether they’d change their practices based on what they saw in the models.

Students started asking so many questions about the basic dynamics of coronavirus contagion that Darter created a forum on her Google Classroom page for discussion and a way to find answers together.

“I learned that they were really worried,” Darter said. “Normally, when something scary happens we’re in school and I’m there with them and they can ask me, and we can talk about it. Having the right information makes everybody feel better.”

The Missouri project isn’t the first to emerge with science-class resources on coronavirus. Teachers are coming up with lots of creative ideas to engage students in discussion about the virus. One 8th grade teacher in Washington state adapted the baby-shower game known as “Don’t Say Baby” to coronavirus, making students surrender their clothespins when they touched their faces.

Teachers are trying simultaneously to create space for students to talk about their feelings about the pandemic, and to turn the pandemic into lessons, explaining what the virus is and drawing students into analyzing information about it.

Some teachers have begun posting coronavirus lesson plans in a special section of the National Science Teaching Association’s website. And NGSS co-writer Peter McLaren has begun assembling coronavirus-related lesson plans for teachers on a Google doc here.

Screen grab of infection-curve modeling activity courtesy of Christy Darter

Image of Missouri teachers in Zoom PD session courtesy of Patricia Friedrichsen

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.