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Infectious-Diseases Program Engages Students in Science

From guest blogger Gina Cairney

At a time of heightened attention to getting students more engaged in STEM learning and careers, a recent initiative called the Great Diseases Project seeks to answer that call by exposing high schoolers to real-world problems that require the use of scientific ideas and practices.

The project, launched in 2009 in Boston, expanded this academic year to reach 300 students in ten schools across the nation. And a new study suggests the curriculum has succeeded in boosting both student engagement and interest in infectious diseases.

"How science is taught in high school differs greatly from how it is carried out in a real-life laboratory," Karina F. Meiri, a professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, said in a press release. Tufts researchers teamed up with teachers at Boston public schools to design the curriculum, which teaches high school students the scientific method and health-related concepts.

In the Great Diseases Project, the "curriculum teaches critical thinking, based on scientific inquiry as it is actually practiced in laboratories around the world," said Meiri.

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The project takes a full semester of class time, and was initially designed for 11th and 12th grade biology students at Boston Latin School and Madison Park Technical and Vocational High School, according to the press release. It was piloted at five Boston public schools before expanding to other states.

The curriculum is broken into four health-related curriculum units over a 6-week period. For example, the infectious diseases unit was built around five key questions, such as why people should care about infectious diseases and how pathogens cause illness. The structure of the course was designed to inform and educate the public about different diseases and how it affects their health, according to the project website.

The research paper published online last month in Academic Medicine found that the Great Diseases Project increased student engagement and interest in infectious disease materials, and based on pre- and post-survey tests, students' understanding of the course content more than doubled.

While the curriculum itself was found to improve student engagement in learning and increase content knowledge, researchers and teachers in the partnership discovered other benefits as well, like increased confidence in teaching and improved communication skills.

To ensure the program's success, researchers in the project focused on creating a teacher support system that includes teacher mentoring and debriefing sessions with content specialists. Surveys taken by participating teachers revealed that as the program progressed and they received the necessary support systems, the teachers became more confident in teaching the complex course material.

The collaboration also helped the researchers break down information into layman's terms. In one survey, a participating content specialist reported improved teaching abilities and being able to talk to people who were not studying health medicine or specialized in that field.

There's no guarantee that a practical curriculum, like the Great Diseases Project, will sell a student on pursuing a STEM career, but courses like this that teach content in the same way they're practiced in the real world could instill a deeper interest in those topics.

Photo: A nurse administers a flu shot to a patient earlier this year in Boston. —Charles Krupa/AP-File

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