Web Connects K-12 Students With Scientists

By Sean Cavanagh — November 09, 2009 8 min read
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The 7 o’clock hour is close at hand, and the Derek-and-Justin evening show is about to begin.

Inside a fifth-floor conference room, Johns Hopkins University epidemiologists Derek Cummings and Justin Lessler are making final preparations before they take to the air—for a live webinar on the spread of swine flu, to be broadcast to a group of middle and high school students across the country.

The two experts on epidemics have come to the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth to give the Web-based audio and video presentation. It’s one of many efforts by universities and science organizations to put K-12 students in direct contact with research scientists, in the hope of giving young people a taste of advanced scientific work and making it less intimidating and more appealing.

A projection screen covers one wall. A laptop computer, a telephone, and a collection of written notes are laid out on a table before the two presenters. And, because someone has either a sense of humor or a sense of hygiene, a big bottle of hand sanitizer sits within reach.

Mapping a Pandemic

A graphic shown during Johns Hopkins University’s Oct. 27 webinar on H1N1 simulates the growth of a theoretical pandemic. Black indicates population density, red indicates areas where the pandemic is alive, and green shows areas where most of the population has recovered.
— SOURCE: Johns Hopkins University

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The live event, held last month, is part of a collection of online features on a theme: “Swine Online.” They’re housed on a Johns Hopkins CTY Web site,, which offers resources created by university staff members and research scientists themselves, filtered by scientific topic. The site’s title alludes to cogito ergo sum, the French philosopher and physicist René Descartes’ famous declaration, “I think, therefore I am.”

Some of Cogito’s offerings are open to anyone. Others, like the webinar, are restricted to students, many of them elite performers recommended by schools and programs like the CTY, which works with top students. Other organizations, such as the National Science Foundation and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, have established similar student-to-scientist programs in recent years, some using Web-based technologies. Those resources can give young people the kind of access to university scientists normally granted to graduate and undergraduate students.

Classroom Model

On this cold, damp night, Mr. Cummings and Mr. Lessler, both 35 years old, have arrived at the university’s satellite campus in northwest Baltimore, shed their jackets, and filled plastic plates full of food set out for them and other staff members. They’re ready for work.

Before the event, they had e-mailed a copy of a PowerPoint presentation to CTY Talent Search Coordinator Stacy S. Johnson, who is running the webinar for the Johns Hopkins CTY program. The two men have a plan for who will explain each slide. Ms. Johnson coaches them on delivery and tone.

“I will introduce you both,” she explains. “Which one of you will start?”

“I will,” says Mr. Cummings, an assistant professor of epidemiology.

“Just pretend you’re having a conversation,” she reminds them. “You can interject with one another.”

A few of their slides are loaded with animation, notes Mr. Lessler, a research associate in epidemiology and infectious diseases, who wonders how they’ll advance them. “I can just point at you, I guess,” he tells Ms. Johnson.

Johns Hopkins’ CTY created Cogito in 2007 with help from several partners, including other colleges and K-12 programs serving talented youths. It is financed by the John Templeton Foundation, a philanthropy based in West Conshohocken, Pa., that supports science education. The site features contributions from Johns Hopkins scientists and others from around the United States and the world. Resources include written articles, question-and-answer pieces, video presentations, and information on science contests.

While the CTY has staged webinars for the program’s participating parents and students, the “Swine Online” webinar, held Oct. 27, was the first one aimed at connecting scientists with students through the technology. If it’s successful, more will follow, says Linda E. Brody, the director of the Study of Exceptional Talent at the Johns Hopkins CTY program.

Putting students in touch with university scientists can improve students’ image of the field, says Betty Calinger, a project director at the Washington-based AAAS, which oversees a program that pairs graduate students with precollegiate classes.

Yet there are challenges: Many scientists find younger students to be a tough crowd, especially if those researchers aren’t accustomed to explaining what they do in simple terms. “You’re used to presenting to an audience that sits and listens to what you’re saying,” Ms. Calinger says of university scientists. Suddenly, they’re addressing a “class of 8th graders who really don’t care. How do you engage them?”

Scientific Projections

Mr. Cummings and Mr. Lessler aren’t sure how receptive their webinar audience will be. A few minutes before 7 p.m., 24 students have logged on. During the session, they will watch the swine-flu presentation on their home computers, and listen to Mr. Cummings and Mr. Lessler as they move through PowerPoint slides. Students submit questions electronically and over a phone line.

After Ms. Johnson reminds the students to mute their phones—“if your dog barks, everybody hears it”—they begin.

“Welcome to the Webinar: Swine Online ’09,” the first slide reads. Ms. Johnson asks students to complete a quick poll, which reveals that most are in 9th or 10th grade.

Another slide appears, and Mr. Cummings takes students through a brief history of flu pandemics: the “Great Influenza” of 1918-1919, the Asian flu of the late 1950s, the Hong Kong flu a decade later, and swine flu today.

An epidemic is an outbreak of illness, like seasonal flu, that spreads easily among humans, though its reach is more limited, he explains—typically because it has been circulating and the population has some immunity to it.

A pandemic, like the swine flu, is an outbreak on a different scale. It is a novel, or new, virus that spreads easily because humans have little immunity to it. It affects a much wider population and geographic area and can cause many more deaths.

Swine flu, or H1N1, is powerful and deadly, but history offers perspective, says Mr. Cummings. The Great Influenza killed 2 percent to 3 percent of the world’s population. It filled hospital wards—or, as one of his slides shows, a warehouse in Kansas—with sick patients. It killed more than 2,500 people in Atlanta in a single week, he notes.

From there, Mr. Lessler describes how scientists attempt to measure how quickly a disease spreads. He shows a “Susceptible Infectious Resistant” model, which allows researchers to project a pandemic’s growth, after inputting factors such as the number of people susceptible, infected, and immune.

The scientists test different scenarios, and an animated graphic comes to life on-screen: bright, multicolored lines rising in vertical arcs or flatlines, which show swine flu’s projected damage over 40, 80, and 160 days.

Related Links

The AAAS and NSF support and run several projects which pair students with research scientists. Here are a few examples:

The ITEST Learning Resource Center
Academies for Young Scientists
Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education (GK12)
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Swine Flu Information

The scientists anticipate a question: Why do we have flu epidemics every year? The strain of a flu virus changes year to year, they explain, a process known as antigenic drift, which makes it difficult for our immune systems to conquer it. In pandemics, an antigenic shift occurs, which represents a “huge jump” in how the virus changes and makes it especially tough for the immune system to overcome it.

By 7:30 p.m., the two scientists are elaborating on each other’s responses, jumping in to clarify points. Meanwhile, a list of student questions is filling the bottom of the screen. Many ask about the safety of swine-flu vaccines. Vaccines can make someone feel sick, which can be caused by the body fighting the virus and the compounds in the shot. But the scientists also make a broader point: Even if there are some side effects to vaccines, the severity of H1N1 indicates that there’s a fairly high risk in doing nothing.

“When we know the virus is circulating and we know it can kill you,” Mr. Lessler says, “the equation changes quite a bit.”

Online Q and A

One student listening at home is Jeffrey Wang, a junior at Auburn High School, in Rockford, Ill.

The 16-year-old recently wrote a paper on modeling the spread of infectious diseases. He plans to expand his research and says the webinar could help. He found the interaction with the scientists appealing.

“In school, we’re reading right out of the textbook,” he says. “It’s not nearly as interesting or engaging.”

The questions continue to roll in. One student asks a practical scientific question: Where does one obtain reliable data on influenza and viruses?

One option is to “go out and collect it,” Mr. Cummings says. He mentions a research project he and Mr. Lessler are conducting on infectious disease in rural and urban areas of southern China. But they also note that several organizations have good data on the Web, including the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and FluNet, which is sponsored by the World Health Organization.

By the end of the webinar, 115 questions have been sent in. Some of them focus not on the science of H1N1, but on the people who study it. One student asks: Is it interesting to be an epidemiologist?

Mr. Lessler left a job as a computer programmer to study infectious diseases, and tells the students he doesn’t regret it.

“It was probably one of the best decisions I ever made,” he says. “You’re working on problems that matter.”

When the event closes at 8 p.m., Ms. Johnson rolls back in her chair and lets out a sigh of relief. The two scientists are still scanning the screen, looking at questions from some obviously very talented students. One of them reads: “The SIR Model says that ds/dt=-BSi. Using R0, does this mean we can rewrite this as -R0/(c D) S I=-R0 gamma/c S I, where gamma is 1/recovery time?”

Mr. Lessler reads it and simply answers: “Wow. Yes.”

The epidemiologists, both of whom have taught classes at Johns Hopkins in addition to conducting research, appreciate the students’ enthusiasm. Mr. Cummings jokes that he worried about hearing “crickets on the end of the line,” or total silence during the event.

His webinar partner says that, in contrast to their audience, he didn’t think he even knew what epidemiology was until he was out of college.

“They seemed to be more engaged than grad students are,” Mr. Lessler says, “to be quite honest.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 11, 2009 edition of Education Week as Web Connects K-12 Students With Scientists


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