As students experience life in the time of COVID-19, they’re being given the rare opportunity to learn the science behind it through a project study based at the MU College of Education and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Researchers Troy Sadler from UNC and Pat Friedrichsen and Laura Zangori from MU are applying their approach, “model-oriented issue-based” teaching, to co-design curriculum with nine teachers in five Missouri high schools.

Model-oriented issue-based teaching places a relevant topic in front of students and uses provided tools and models to help them cultivate greater science knowledge and literacy. Students are asked to consider social, cultural and economic dimensions about the issue as well.

For the past five years, the team created modules around topics like vaping and junk food; the coronavirus seemed the logical choice now because of its unprecedented prevalence.

The team received a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Rapid Response Research Program, which aids urgent research projects, according to a news release from MU.

Initially, the plan was to create an entire module meant for in-class collaboration, but school closures and the move to online learning condensed the curriculum into four core lessons:

Social distancing:

  • simulating its correlation to infection rates.

Contagiousness:

  • using R0 (or “R naught”), a mathematical value that measures how contagious an infectious disease is, to show the increase of infection rates over time.

Media literacy:

  • sifting through news sources for evidence-based material.

Systems-thinking:

  • looking at the bigger picture of how the virus affects social, cultural and economic dimensions.

These modules are available for free for instructional use on UNC’s website.

“We wanted students to learn about the virus and how it spread and what they can do,” Friedrichsen, professor of science education, said.

Alongside teaching the curriculum, the team is collecting data from the students including what topics they’re most interested in learning about regarding the pandemic, what they think other students need to know about it, where they get information and what they do to vet that information.

Rhiannon McKee, who teaches a hybrid class of biology and literature at Jefferson City High School, said she was most interested in teaching the media literacy activities.

“If you ask kids where they get their information, it’s usually social media,” McKee said. “But if we can ask them to really look at the quality of their information, hopefully they’ll understand the science behind it.”

Andrew Kinslow, a science teacher at Rock Bridge High School, said that, historically, science has done a good job of teaching the nuts and bolts of biology.

This “socio-scientific” method of learning, on the other hand, is a great way to embed science into real life and to help kids put the pandemic into context, he said.

“The coronavirus is a devastating, new pandemic,” Kinslow said. “But we can make something positive by using this as a platform to explore these really important decisions that we must make about, ‘Where are we going to focus our energy?’”

Christy Darter, a science teacher at Raytown High School near Kansas City, is almost a month into teaching the developed curriculum.

Because Raytown and other Missouri schools have decided not to penalize students for not participating (as long as they had passing grades), she was worried her students wouldn’t be engaged with the project.

“But that’s not really been the case,” Darter said. “I really credit the unit for that.”

Darter said her students are understanding the coronavirus at a deeper level than some adults, and she said it may be because some of her students are essential workers at grocery stores.

“They’ve seen colleagues who got infected with the virus and the consequences,” she said. “I think they’re seeing (COVID-19) in many more ways than I am.”

The project launched at the same time as students and teachers were transitioning into remote learning, and there was some concern about whether it was too much or should continue.

“The teachers were really concerned about, ‘Is this the best thing I can do for my students?’” Friedrichsen said, referring to concern that focusing on the virus would increase student stress.

The teachers acknowledged students may still be coping with the effects of the pandemic, including lack of reliable internet, their own job loss or a parent’s job loss, or knowing someone who has been infected with the coronavirus.

“The more we talked about it, we realized (teaching it) is a way for kids to process what they’re going through,” McKee said.

Friedrichsen said it’s the research team’s policy not to release names of the students in their study because they are minors.

Dawn Huber, psychologist at MU Child Health, spoke to the teachers about how teaching the coronavirus at such a crucial time of transition and perhaps trauma is more beneficial than harmful.

Huber said it’s a natural impulse to not want to teach a controversial topic. Although avoiding it can help as a coping mechanism in the short term, it’ll be more difficult in the long term, she said.

“This is an opportunity for teachers to be authentic and validate students that this can be a scary time,” Huber said.

Kinslow, Huber’s husband, said teaching about the coronavirus has allowed him to process it alongside his students.

“Our role as a teacher in this circumstance is to be flexible, to be gracious,” he said, “extending lots of opportunities for students to approach this information in a way that makes sense for them.”

For more COVID-19 related news, see our section dedicated to COVID-19 updates.
  • Education beat reporter at the Columbia Missourian, fall 2019. Studying News Reporting at MU. Reach me at dpanuncial@mail.missouri.edu or the newsroom at 882-5720.

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