The present global crisis is unprecedented. The coronavirus pandemic is impacting our lives in unimaginable ways. The pace and magnitude of the spread of the virus is unsettling. Understandably, this is a time of heightened anxiety for students as well as teachers.
As science teachers and students are transitioning to teaching and learning online in response to calls for social distancing, making shared space for student voice is particularly powerful when students can feel isolated. During difficult situations such as this, students need a place to express their concerns and deepen their knowledge.
How are you teaching science in the time of coronavirus?
Share your ideas below!
When discussing and designing lessons about the coronavirus, consider the following steps.
Assessing prior knowledge is an important step in teaching, but it is also essential in evaluating what students know, what they think they know, and how they might be misinformed. Asking the following questions is a great place to start:
- What do we know about coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) that causes it?
- How is the virus transmitted?
- What are the symptoms of the disease?
- How is the disease diagnosed?
- How can infection be prevented (including behaviors and the body’s innate immune response)?
- What actions might we take to contain the spread of the virus?
Instant access to information can be overwhelming, and since misinformation can go viral, we need to respond to conspiracy theories and false science. The current moment offers a time to develop critical information literacy skills needed to evaluate sources of information, which is essential in our increasingly complex information networks. We can encourage the use of reputable sources of information about the coronavirus such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. The video below from the World Health Organization is a great introduction to questions about the coronavirus.
Find out what students want to know.
Students are likely curious about the coronavirus. But there are many new terms to understand, such as the technical name for the virus (SARS-CoV-2) and the disease it causes (COVID-19), the difference between isolation and quarantine, when an epidemic becomes a pandemic, and what it means to flatten the curve. The New York Times provides a helpful glossary of terminology related to the coronavirus. And you can work with students to create their own.
Seek answers together, explain that scientific information is always evolving, and give students the opportunity to share what they learn with others. This process allows students to see science as an unfolding and ongoing conversation and to see themselves as actively creating and sharing scientific knowledge rather than passively consuming it. Ideas for sharing student work can include the following platforms and tools for products and performances:
- Blogs (Using sites such as WordPress and Google’s Blogger)
- Infographics (Take a look at this coronavirus themed template from Adobe Spark. Venngage is another great resource.)
- Padlet posts
Connect science content with its cultural context
To actively engage students in learning, teachers can and should make learning relevant by connecting science content with what is going on in the lives of our students. We can ground our teaching in problem-posing pedagogies that ask students to think critically about real-world problems as a means of bringing science to life.
With the coronavirus pandemic impacting the daily lives of our students, we can ask them to take on the role of public health scientists. They can explore the structure and action of the virus, and they can learn about the structure and function of the body’s immune defense. Through this work, they can consider both individual and social body viral containment as they are experiencing these efforts first-hand through individual actions of hand washing and social distancing, as well as social orders to stay at home and shelter in place.
Duke TIP’s free online epidemiology curriculum, Discovering Science and Medicine, offers a medical mystery scenario (a disease outbreak at a state fair) where students can make choices along the way. Feel free to repurpose for your classes. Check out lessons 9 and the Medical Mystery lesson.
Offer debate opportunities
While we engage our students in investigation of foundational scientific concepts, we can also give our students opportunities for discussion of controversial ethical issues. Our work with students can focus on interrelated scientific and ethical inquiry and imagination. This allows students to not only share what they know but to consider what to do with that knowledge.
Throughout the world, we are practicing various forms of viral containment. Though, the restriction of movement is a human rights issue. With a discussion about ways of containing the pandemic, we can work with students to tease out the tensions between individual rights and group well-being. This article from Scientific American might be a good starting place for discussion: China’s Citywide Quarantines: Are They Ethical and Effective?
Explore ethics questions
Scientific inquiry seeks to discover what is by answering questions such as why and how, while ethics seeks to imagine what we, as a society, should do in light of advances in science and medicine. The coronavirus pandemic provides many ethical questions to explore with students, one of which is the debate over how to best contain the spread of the virus.
The Exploring Bioethics curriculum from the National Institute of Health offers a set of four key questions that can be used to explore an ethical problem.
- What is the ethical question? Students should develop skills to see the ethical dimension of a situation, while differentiating between scientific and ethical questions. Understanding how the coronavirus spreads is different from considering how best to effectively and ethically contain that spread.
- What are the relevant facts? Scientific and social science information are interconnected parts of providing context for the problem.
- Who or what could be affected by the way this question gets resolved? In considering the impact of social distancing efforts including inability to pay medical bills, loss of jobs, lack of access to school lunches, etc., students can develop empathy for others.
- What are the relevant ethical considerations? To help students address ethical questions, they need to understand key guiding principles, which can include respect for autonomy, minimizing harms while maximizing benefits, justice, and solidarity.
Finally, once students have answered these questions, they should build strong justifications to explain their reasoning for how they would address the ethical problem of viral containment.
This activity can be a great collaborative assignment that student groups can work through using Google Docs where their individual and shared work can be assessed. It is important to establish rules for respectful dialogue opening space for different perspectives. Before beginning this type of activity, students should work together to determine what respect looks like and how to model those behaviors in their work with each other.
Remember that as scientific knowledge and news updates daily, teachers and students are on the same learning team, expanding our discoveries. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know, but let’s figure it out.” It’s fine to acknowledge that people are feeling strong emotions, and hopefully through our shared work we will find calm and patience. We can continue to engage in scientific and ethical inquiry to seek answers to the multiple facets of the current situation we are living in.
Additional resources for teaching during the time of coronavirus can be found here.