Colorado

Middle schoolers tackle epidemiology

Students use sticky notes and a kind of "brain mapping" system to determine what questions to ask to help local companies develop an epidemic response plan.

Stephanie Qi was just wiping her hands from a quick rinse in the bathroom sink when Brooke Garbarini accosted her.

“You call that washing your hands?” 11-year-old Brooke yelled. “You have to use soap! Was that hot water? You have to use hot water!”

There was an awkward silence from Stephanie, also 11, then Brooke continued her harangue.

“You have to wash the backs of your hands, between your fingers and your thumbs. Bacteria have a new generation every 20 minutes! You have to use soap to wash off the germs, and keep your hands under the hot water for 20 seconds.”

“And what happens if I don’t?” Stephanie shot back.

“You can get tons of diseases. You can get the flu, swine flu, SARS disease, staph infection, polio and diarrhea. There are millions of germs on your hands.”

Brooke carried on for another minute about the germs on the bathroom door handle, touched on the topic of the incubation of germs, and the threat of mutation caused by overuse of antibacterial soap.

And just in case Stephanie remained skeptical, at that point 12-year-old Shaina Levison and 12-year-old Jesse Zhang stepped out of two nearby stalls and did a little dance and sang a rap song about hand-washing.

Cut! Take five!

The “bathroom hand-washing scene” is just one scene in a movie these precocious youngsters are making to promote public health and educate other students about proper public hygiene.

Nearby, some other equally precocious youngsters are preparing for a presentation they’ll give to some Boulder businesses on coming up with an organizational response plan should an epidemic strike. What mitigation steps can the businesses take? How do they prepare for a worst-case scenario? How do they respond should an epidemic fell large numbers of employees?

The students, all rising seventh and eighth graders in Boulder-area public schools, have spent five weeks soaking up the heady academic atmosphere at a free summer enrichment program at the private Alexander Dawson School in Lafayette. The program – entitled “Epidemic, Past and Present” – ends this week. Sponsored by the Dawson Foundation Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, it brought in 31 high-achieving middle schoolers and immersed them in a challenging curriculum that included virology, disaster preparedness, history and the economic effects of outbreaks.

“Oh my gosh,” said teacher Valerie Keeney, who normally teaches science at The Pinnacle charter school in Federal Heights but who signed on to teach the science component of the epidemic program at Dawson.

“I’ve been teaching stuff I would teach high school sophomores,” she said. “These kids latched onto it immediately. The stuff they’ve come up with is seriously impressive. It blows me away that they’ve just come out of sixth and seventh grade.”

Students work to create a model of a hand for use in a hand-washing display.

While some students were learning about DNA and RNA and the differences in bacteria and viruses in the science group, others focused on math, doing computer modeling of how epidemics spread. A humanities group focused on a study of the history of epidemics throughout the ages.

They also had the chance to talk to some high-powered experts on the subject. Guest speakers included Boulder County health officials, a medical historian from the University of Colorado, and emergency preparedness experts from Exampla Healthcare and the University of Colorado Hospital.

They also spent time with journalist Maryn McKenna, author of Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA, an account of the dangers of drug-resistent staphylococcus.

“I thought she was trying to scare us a lot,” said Shaina Levison, a student at Heritage Middle School in Longmont, of McKenna’s visit. “But people need to be scared because if we’re not, we won’t learn what to do about it.”

Levison is part of the group of students now working to develop a public hygiene campaign. They’re aiming to create material appropriate for second- and third-graders. Among their projects — a movie, which they have written and will film themselves, and a hand-washing display featuring bacteria they’ve grown themselves.

Watch the students rehearse the hand-washing skit and rap song and dance they wrote.

“We’re not telling them what to do,” said Kevin Cloud, executive director of the Dawson Center. “They’ve listened to the pros, and they’ve learned that the best thing you can do is wash your hands. People already do that, but not well. They’re working on ways to present that information.”

Cloud figures that adults, too, can learn something from these super-smart kids. He’s recruited three local companies – a high tech startup, an industry group and a small manufacturer – to be guinea pigs for the students. They will study these businesses, ask them questions and put together customized response plans that the companies could initiate should an epidemic strike.

Students studying the history of epidemics created graphic representations of pandemics down through the ages.

“They’re not just a bunch of kids,” Cloud said. “They can do serious stuff. For the companies, there is no downside to this. If the resulting plan has value to them, that’s great. Or maybe they won’t want to use the document the students develop, but it may start a dialogue within the company.”

Above all, Cloud expects the students who participated in the five-week program to take what they learned back into their home schools come fall. There, they will impact the health of their classrooms by their example.

“One highly motivated student per classroom makes a big difference,” he said.

That’s something the youngsters themselves are certain they will do.

“I think we’ll take this with us wherever we go,” Levison said. “Stuff like how not to spread your diseases to other people. And I never realized before how medicines can hurt you. Did you know if you take medicines for a bug you don’t have, it can mutate?

“And if you’re taking antibiotics, and you don’t finish them all, the bug can become resistant to them,” added Qi. “This weekend, I’m going to the wilderness but I’m going to wash my hands a lot. From now on I’m going to wash my hands 10 times as much as I used to.”

Rebecca Jones can be reached at rjones@ednewscolorado.org.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”