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Infectious Enthusiasm

Every day's a sick day for students in Jason Rosé's epidemiology class.

Every day's a sick day for students in Jason Rosé's epidemiology class.
—Photograph by Fred Mertz

In 1773, an outbreak of yellow fever in Philadelphia sent residents fleeing in panic from the city and crushed efforts to dissuade the federal government from relocating to Washington, D.C. Sound like something students would read about in history class? At the King's Academy, a college preparatory Christian school in Sunnyvale, California, kids study this story and others like it in a science class called Pestilence and Civilization.

Designed by AP chemistry teacher Jason Rosé, the course examines epidemiology and the influence of disease on culture, medicine, and society. A history buff and biochemist by training, Rosé hopes students will leave his class with both a healthy respect for infectious diseases and the knowledge to combat them.

Rosé created his curriculum five years ago, culling most of the required reading from his own library. Students study the medical literature on specific diseases, including bubonic plague, smallpox, and cholera, along with eyewitness accounts of plagues from such sources as Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year and records kept by the conquistadors. They also examine disease references in the works of Shakespeare and Chaucer.

Students say the course gives them a new perspective on history and science. "I learned that we very nearly lost the Revolutionary War because of our troops' lack of immunity to smallpox," says Charlotte Carnevale, 20, now a sophomore at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. "That's something they don't tell you in conventional history books."

Rosé also sets up microbiology labs that recreate the late-19th century experiments of Nobel Prize winner Robert Koch, the scientist who initiated the protocols doctors use today to diagnose a disease's origins. But Rosé isn't content to let his students think the days of plague live in history books. He also sets them loose on campus to swab surfaces, then test for bacteria.

With SARS, AIDS, and other diseases still threatening lives, Rosé says the course resonates with 21st century teenagers. He presses that advantage by stressing that prevention and education can avert large-scale epidemiological disasters.

Yet despite the often-depressing subject matter, "I have a lot of fun," Rosé confesses. When students understand something, he says, "it's really, really cool to see...the lights go on."

—Aviva Werner

Vol. 15, Issue 5, Page 72

Published in Print: March 1, 2004, as Colleagues
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