With the coronavirus pandemic disrupting so many aspects of their lives, it is perhaps more important than ever for middle- and high-school students to understand how scientific knowledge is created and how this knowledge is translated into policy. A new and freely available online course created by an interdisciplinary team of researchers at Penn State and Northwestern University aims to expose students to some of the practices being used by experts who are working on COVID-19.
“This free course addresses a general lack of public understanding about science and pandemics, in particular, as well as the need for high-quality online learning materials that can be used by teachers and their students, homeschooling parents and their children, and interested citizens,” said Matthew Johnson, assistant professor of education and research associate in the Penn State Center for Science and the Schools who led the development of the course along with Eugene Lengerich, professor of epidemiology in the Penn State College of Medicine.
The creation of the course was funded by Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute and Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences COVID-19 Pandemic Emergency Research Funding in Social and Behavioral Sciences seed grant.
The course, called "The Science of COVID-19," includes modules on virology, epidemiology and public health preparedness. Through short content lectures and interaction with embedded online tools, students and other users can develop a better understanding of how pandemics are studied, modeled, prepared for and mitigated.
The virology begins with a case study of a patient in a Chinese hospital who exhibits pneumonia-like symptoms but whose tests indicate a novel infection. Students use publicly available genetic sequences and software to compare the new virus with other known viruses in order to identify SARS-CoV-2 as a coronavirus. They also learn how the virus mutates, and they investigate the design, development and testing of vaccines.
In the epidemiology module, students learn to model the virus’s spread, as well as how to plan and carry out interventions to protect public health. The module introduces students to the use of models for investigating disease spread that consider topics such as the infection status of individuals, and the likelihood of individuals interacting and of the virus being transmitted during the interaction. Students use these models to run different scenarios, including varying the probabilities of infection, interaction and death. Students then evaluate the potential effects of non-medical interventions like hand washing and social distancing.
The public health preparedness module gives students an appreciation for the rationale behind interventions aimed at flattening the curve. The module guides students in using online tools to learn more about their own areas and the particular vulnerabilities of their local hospitals. The students use publicly available data to calculate the rate of infection at which their county’s healthcare system would be at full capacity for the COVID-19. Students also learn how they can act locally to support those who are most vulnerable; for example, through the American Red Cross.
“As their schools are challenged with alternating opening and closing and implementing control measures, middle- and high-school students and their parents must decide whether to attend school in person or remain virtual. As a result, these students play a central role in controlling the inevitable community spread of COVID-19,” said Lengerich. “Our curriculum was developed to give these students the knowledge and skills to be lynchpins in combatting the spread of SARS-CoV-2 within their homes, neighborhoods and communities.”
Johnson noted that in addition to educating and empowering students, the course also provides educators and parents with high-quality, engaging educational content.
“During the pandemic, science teachers have been forced to develop digital content due to the need to educate their students remotely,” said Johnson. “We hope that this freely available course will take some of the burden off of teachers and parents, engage students in science learning and even decrease the opportunity gap for students in poorer school districts.”
So far, the course has registered over 1,300 users from 45 states and across the globe. “We’ve received positive feedback from users thus far,” said Johnson. “It’s very rare to be able to learn about sciences as it is happening, and truly demonstates that science is not static, and depends upon people from various levels of expertise coming together to solve scientific problems.”
Other Penn State people involved with the project include Tiffany Lewis and Amber Cesare, both STEM education outreach specialists in the Center for Science and the Schools; Anthony Schmitt, professor of molecular virology; Matthew Ferrari, associate professor of biology; Heather Schubert, MPS, homeland security (public health preparedness option); and Savanna Ledford, PhD candidate in public health. Kit Martin, a research associate in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern, collaborated on the project.