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How Lessons About Public Health Can Engage Students in Science Class

by Staff

For science teachers, the past few years have offered no shortage of real-world lessons.

The pandemic presented opportunities to talk about epidemiology and health communications. Natural disasters, from hurricanes to wildfires, left teachers to explain the effects of a changing climate and its impact on communities.

At a SXSW EDU panel this week in Austin, educators and experts said that seizing those moments and helping students make sense of them can engage students in science classes.

Panelists focused on public health specifically, discussing how the subject could broaden students’ understanding of who scientists are and what they do. They also offered tips on how to weave the subject into the standard course progression.

Public health topics—like the opioid epidemic, racism, and measles vaccinations—are “all things that have been really prominent in the news, that are impacting our youth today,” said Kelly Bloodworth, an epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Developing this relevance also aligns with many states’ science standards.

One driving goal behind the Next Generation Science Standards, which have been adopted by 20 states and the District of Columbia, was to make the subject feel more pertinent to kids’ lives. Developers of the standards have said that kids should be able to see the connections between what they’re learning in science classes and how it will affect their families and their communities.

These are four tips from the panelists on how to embed public health lessons into coursework.

1. Start with student questions

When Kelsey Fusco, a science teacher and department chair at South Forsyth High School in Cumming, Ga., came back to campus in August 2020, her students had a lot of questions.

The district didn’t mandate masks, so kids wanted to know why—and why other districts around the country did. They also didn’t fully understand the purpose of quarantining, Fusco said.

When the teenagers in her class were told they had been exposed to someone with the coronavirus and had to quarantine, they didn’t understand why they couldn’t get out of the requirement right away with a negative test.

“Having to explain what infection period meant, and incubation period—all of these terms became a daily context for them,” Fusco said. “The need was so present to be able to explain some of that content to them, because it was so relevant to their daily lives.”

Fusco worked some of these topics into her science lessons at the time. She also planned some cross-curricular instruction—with topics like epidemic curves. The graphic representations showed the number of cases in an outbreak over time, and learning about them requires marrying math and science concepts, Fusco said.

2. Teachers don’t need a public health course to teach public health topics

Fusco embeds related lessons into her core science classes, like 9th grade biology. “It’s using what you already know, the standards you already know, and making this more authentic for student learning,” she said.

Doing this can be as simple as explaining how established science knowledge—like the function of the cell membrane, or the carbon cycle—is put into practice now, said John Loehr, the vice president for STEM education at Science Olympiad.

“Too often, we teach everything like it’s history,” Loehr said. “We’re never talking about how those discoveries, that knowledge, still is impacting us in the real world today.”

3. Make connections to ideas students already understand

Educators can use analogies to simplify complex science topics, said Rishi Desai, a pediatrician and the chief medical officer at Osmosis, a health education platform created by the publishing company Elsevier.

Osmosis partnered with the CDC to create content for a public health-related middle and high school curriculum.

He gave an example of fetal development. During pregnancy, fetal cells get signals to grow different body parts—fingers on hands, toes on feet, for instance. How do the cells get these messages?

“We use this beautiful diagram that I think is quite simple, that talks about it in the context of mail,” Desai said.

In the U.S. Postal Service, mail carriers know where to deliver items based on the address that’s on the envelope. This system in the body works in a similar way, Desai said. This kind of analogy can help foreign-seeming processes click for students, he said.

4. Show how classroom learning can lead to future career options

In her high school classes, most students come in thinking that the only science careers are nurse, doctor, or engineer, said Fusco.

Teaching about public health gives her the opportunity to present kids with other options: infectious disease specialists, epidemiologists, health communications experts, and lab specialists.

“It answers the lifelong question of students in the classroom: ‘When are we going to use this?’” Fusco said.

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