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UNC professor leading project to develop high school science lessons on COVID-19

Students prepare for class in Phillips 208 on Monday, March 18, 2019.

You may have wondered what the COVID-19 chapter will look like in a history textbook — but students may be tackling the coronavirus pandemic in the classroom sooner than you think. 

Troy Sadler, a UNC professor in the School of Education, is leading a one-year research project that will produce a set of high school science lessons focused on the coronavirus epidemic. The team of researchers for the project includes investigators from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

“There's lots of very complex dimensions of the issue itself, but there are ways of parsing some of that complexity and focusing on some aspects of the overall epidemic that are relatable and make sense to students, and are important for students to understand,” Sadler said.

Sadler said he started conceptualizing the project in January when he saw reports of the virus spreading in China. The project was awarded a $200,000 grant through the National Science Foundation’s Rapid Response Research program March 1, and work on the project began immediately after, said Sadler.

Because the research team needed to rapidly prototype the lessons in time for them to be tested in several classrooms this spring, Sadler worked with a group of Missouri high school teachers, who were familiar with his approach to issue-based teaching from an earlier project. The teaching style uses compelling and complex social issues — such as climate change, genetic engineering and pandemics — as contexts for teaching and learning, said Sadler.

By integrating real world issues into the classroom, Sadler said students can see how the material they’re learning can translate to bigger picture issues and inform important decisions in their lives, which he hopes is achieved through the instructional materials his research team and partner teachers designed.

While Sadler said his team is still working this summer to develop and refine more lessons to form a coherent instructional unit that teachers can use over the course of a week or two in their classrooms, some early versions of activities have already been tested in a few classrooms. 

Sadler said one of the activities that has been created shows how social distancing can impact viral spread through a modeled simulation that allows students to manipulate variables to see likely outcomes. Another activity is intended to help students develop a set of skills that can be used to analyze their information sources.

Sadler said all activities will be developed with enough flexibility to be suitable for both in-person or online instruction, due to the uncertainty of returning to the traditional classroom setting in the fall.

As the materials are used in classrooms, the research team will collect data through questionnaires and surveys to gauge students’ understandings of COVID-19, their interests and their use of information sources. 

Based on his initial findings, Sadler said in general, there was greater student interest in learning about the international health crisis than the “business as usual curriculum.”

Patty Berge, a career technical education biomedical teacher at East Chapel Hill High School, said she felt it was important to address COVID-19 in the classroom since the virus was impacting students’ lives so dramatically.

Berge said she saw her students’ knowledge of the pandemic and its impact on their lives improve as a result of tying her curriculum to COVID-19. In collaboration with fellow biomedical teachers at her school, she said she created a few activities for students to delve into facts about COVID-19, the news surrounding it and ways to prevent outbreaks.

“There's so much misinformation and disinformation out there about COVID, that it really is our responsibility to make sure that we're teaching the kids to go to the right resources and find the correct information and get the evidence to support what they're saying versus just repeating what they heard somebody else say, which has been a big issue,” Berge said.

Margaret Burns, a science teacher at Jordan High School in Durham, said her students showed interest in learning about COVID-19 and found that a lot of them were doing their own research on the virus. 

Like Berge, Burns said she thought it was important to remind students where accurate information can be found. Burns said she showed students the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website and discussed how to understand its guidance and apply their knowledge.

“It’s definitely going to be something that we talk about in classes for a really long time,” Burns said. “It is something that's a shared experience by everyone at this point.”

As teachers develop lesson plans this summer, Kimberly Manning, a science teacher at East Chapel Hill High School, said COVID-19 will be a part of her instruction and many others in the fall. While science is perhaps the easiest subject to connect to the pandemic, she said history teachers at her school also addressed it from a historical and social justice perspective. 

“We will always walk hand in hand with diseases, but we as a people, collectively, we have to be able to deal with it, learn about it, decode it and institute practices that are going to allow us to still live and coexist,” Manning said. “So, as teachers, as educators, we have to make it a part of what we do.” 

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