The Threat of Emerging Infectious Diseases Highlights the Need for Scientific Literacy
The COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted the importance of having a scientifically literate public. With a deadly virus spreading around the globe, people should base their actions on the best scientific knowledge that is available. Unfortunately, the public is often presented with conflicting information, and many lack the expertise to determine which claims are most reliable. We need to prepare our students to be scientifically literate so they become critical consumers of scientific information who can distinguish credible accounts of scientific research from those that are untrustworthy.
The Rise of Infectious Diseases
The SARS-CoV-2 virus is just one of a number of novel viruses that have recently emerged. One recent study looked at more than 12,000 outbreaks of around 200 human infectious diseases that occurred between 1980 and 2013 and found a statistically significant increase in the number of outbreaks during that period (Smith et al. 2014; Christiansen 2018). Approximately 40 viruses have emerged as significant threats since the 1970s, including swine flu, Ebola, HIV, avian influenza, SARS, MERS, chikungunya, and Zika (Baylor College of Medicine 2020). A number of factors have contributed to the greater potential for the emergence and rapid spread of infectious diseases, including encroachment on wild habitats, which brings people into closer contact with wild animals; the increased use of livestock; more densely populated areas; and increased travel over greater distances.
This has essentially been the story of the COVID-19 pandemic. Public health experts agree that we should have seen COVID-19 coming and been better prepared, but in many countries the response was too little, too late. Future outbreaks and epidemics are inevitable, but do not have to reach pandemic proportions like COVID-19 (Bloom and Cadarette 2020). A scientifically literate citizenry can maintain the focus of governments on preparing for future outbreaks.
How to Become Scientifically Literate
Scientific literacy begins with understanding the nature of science. Students must have authentic experiences using science practices, concepts, and principles to explain real-world phenomena so they can understand how scientists arrive at reliable conclusions and why those conclusions should be trusted.
But, while an understanding of the nature of science acquired from classroom experiences is important, that understanding alone isn't sufficient to enable students to fully evaluate scientific claims on their own (Allchin 2020; Hӧttecke and Allchin 2020). The full evaluation of a scientific claim requires considerable expertise, and no one person has expertise in all areas of science. Throughout their lives, students will have to rely on the testimony of experts in the relevant field of science that concerns each issue, and on reliable secondary sources that report on science. In addition to understanding how scientific knowledge is generated and tested, they will have to decide which of the individuals who claim to have expertise, and which secondary sources, can and should be trusted (Oreskes and Conway 2010; Oreskes 2019).
BioInteractive has resources that help students acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to be critical consumers of scientific information. Below are some examples of BioInteractive resources that can be used not only to learn about infectious diseases but also to develop key skills for understanding and evaluating science in general.
Analyzing Data on Viruses
Engaging in authentic science experiences using real scientific data enables students to understand that science provides reliable knowledge that is grounded in experiment and observation. The BioInteractive classroom activity “Ebola: Disease Detectives” is an authentic and timely activity dealing with the 2013–2016 Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa. The activity offers students the opportunity to analyze and interpret some real data collected by scientists who investigated the spread of disease during the largest outbreak of Ebola seen to this point (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2019). Multiple parallels can be drawn between Ebola and COVID-19; for example, both are zoonoses: diseases transmitted from animals to humans. The outbreak of Ebola was found to originate from contact with a bat, and SARS-CoV-2 is suspected to be zoonotic, though the exact animal origin of SARS-CoV-2 has not yet been identified.
This lesson begins with students watching a short video, Think Like a Scientist: Natural Selection in an Outbreak. Computational geneticist Pardis Sabeti and epidemiologist Lina Moses discuss the 2013–2016 Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Scientists in Sabeti’s lab analyzed sequences from Ebola samples collected from around 80 patients. In the hands-on activity that follows, students analyze a small subset of the data in order to make inferences about the spread of the virus during the epidemic.
After watching the video, students work in small groups to analyze a set of cards, which contain DNA sequences complementary to those of Ebola viruses isolated from patients during the outbreak. (Since Ebola is an RNA virus, complementary DNA was synthesized for sequencing.) Students compare 15 sequences to each other and to a reference sequence looking for patterns in the mutations. Each group of students creates a visual to highlight the relationships they find among the sequences. A gallery walk is a useful strategy to have students share their work with peers. During a gallery walk, student work is displayed around the room and students walk around, either individually or in their small groups, to observe, evaluate, and comment constructively on other students’ work.
Students are then presented with a graphic that shows how scientists in Sabeti’s lab organized the 15 sequences. Students compare the groupings to their own and respond to questions that guide them through an analysis of the data. The sequences cluster into three groups based on shared mutations. Students learn that, as viruses replicate, they accumulate mutations that can be analyzed to understand the origin and spread of disease during an epidemic. The extension at the end of the activity guides students to the Virus Explorer Click & Learn, where they can investigate the structure, hosts, transmission, and vaccine availability for 10 viruses, including the Ebola virus.
Many other virus-related resources available on the BioInteractive website can be used to give students additional opportunities to learn about viruses and analyze viral data. For example, in the “Epidemiology of Nipah Virus” activity, students analyze real data from a Nipah virus outbreak in Malaysia in order to identify the reservoir of the virus and suggest how to curtail the outbreak. This activity supports a Scientists at Work video, Virus Hunter: Monitoring Nipah Virus in Bat Populations. In addition, there are animations of virus structures and life cycles, and virus-related Data Point activities that feature a graph or figure from a scientific journal article for students to interpret and discuss. This playlist sequences many of these virus-related resources for online courses.
Reading Primary Literature
A full analysis of the viral sequences featured in the “Ebola: Disease Detectives” activity appears in the journal Science (Gire et al. 2014). Students can read an annotated version of this paper on the “Science in the Classroom” website; the papers on this website support students’ efforts to read and understand primary literature. The paper explains how the scientists used next-generation sequencing to track the pathogen’s origin, transmission, and evolution during the outbreak.
Exploring Phylogenetic Analysis
Organizing Ebola viral sequences according to shared mutations in the “Ebola: Disease Detectives” activity introduces students in a limited way to comparative methods used in phylogenetic analysis. Phylogenetic analysis is used to investigate the history of life, but it also has applications beyond organizing the specimens that fill the world’s museums.
Students can explore the methods of phylogenetic analysis applied to DNA sequences more thoroughly in the Creating Phylogenetic Trees from DNA Sequences Click & Learn, an interactive module that shows how DNA sequences can be used to infer evolutionary relationships. This interactive and related resources support learning outcomes related to inheritance, variation, and biological evolution (AAAS 2011; NGSS Lead States 2013; College Board 2019) and broaden students’ understanding of scientific methods beyond controlled experiments to include comparative methods that are used widely in biology and related fields (Singer et al. 2001; Lents et al. 2010).
Modeling the Scientific Process
Experiences like “Ebola: Disease Detectives,” in which students use science practices, concepts, and principles to explain biologically relevant, real-world phenomena, are fundamental to the development of their scientific literacy. Engaging students in the analysis, interpretation, and discussion of the meaning of data enables them to gain an appreciation for the process of science by engaging in the same types of activities that scientists do. Lave and Wenger (1991) referred to this as “legitimate peripheral participation,” a method by which novices gain experience in a community of practice. BioInteractive has many activities that engage students in data interpretation. By working with real data, students understand that the data can be messy, unlike the way it is often portrayed in textbooks. Data must be interpreted, and scientists may differ in their interpretations.
During these activities, students must also defend their claims to their peers using cogent arguments. Again, this models how science is done, because scientific knowledge is socially negotiated. Scientists evaluate the work of their peers on the basis of methodological standards, evidential standards, and performance standards. Claims about data become established scientific knowledge when a majority of scientists with relevant expertise can agree on these claims; in other words, when they reach a consensus of opinion in support of the claims. Naomi Oreskes explains this process in a Holiday Lecture, “Climate Change: How Do We Know We're Not Wrong?” Oreskes also said in her 2014 TED talk “Why Should We Trust Scientists?” that “scientific knowledge … is the consensus of the scientific experts who through [a] process of organized scrutiny … have judged the evidence and come to a conclusion about it, either yea or nay.”
Evaluating Science Media
Most of our students do not go on to advanced study or careers in science. Even those who do become scientists will have expertise in a relatively narrow area and, like nonscientists, will have to rely on the testimony of experts in areas outside their field of expertise and on secondary sources that report on science. In addition to understanding how scientists generate reliable knowledge of the natural world, all students need a functional scientific literacy that includes media literacy so they can distinguish the claims of genuine experts from those who claim expertise to promote their own financial interest or ideological agenda (Oreskes and Conway 2010; Hӧttecke & Allchin 2020). This is true for the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as for other science-related issues like climate change and vaccine safety.
BioInteractive has an activity, “Evaluating Science in the News,” that develops students’ media literacy. The activity provides students with criteria for critically evaluating the trustworthiness of reports about scientific information. Students are encouraged to consider the timeliness and accuracy of the information presented, and whether the authors make reasonable claims based on evidence. In addition, students are encouraged to consider whether the speaker or author appears to have an agenda that conflicts with objective reporting of reliable scientific information.
For example, this activity could be used to have students evaluate claims about the value of wearing masks to slow the spread of COVID-19. A controversy over requiring masks to be worn vs. preserving personal freedoms has erupted across the country, with some organizations making claims, without evidence, about the efficacy of masks (Bromwich 2020). This is in contrast to recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Furthermore, numerous posts on social media are claiming that mask wearing causes oxygen deficiency and carbon dioxide intoxication, claims that are refuted by the World Health Organization.
It may also be beneficial for more advanced students to look into what the available science actually says about the benefits and risks of wearing masks. Several sources provide excellent places to begin. Greenhalgh et al. (2020) provide a nice overview of the evidence and arguments for and against mask wearing for reducing the spread of disease through respiratory droplets. This article, written in April 2020, notes that the evidence supporting the value of masks for limiting the spread of infectious diseases was “sparse and contested,” but the authors argue that, based on the precautionary principle, sometimes we need to act without conclusive scientific evidence. “Evidence based medicine tends to focus predominantly on internal validity … using tools to assess risk of bias and adequacy of statistical analysis. External validity relates to a different question: whether findings of primary studies done in a different population with a different disease or risk state are relevant to the current policy question” (Greenhalgh et al. 2020). Therefore, they make the reasonable claim, based on previous studies, that the possible benefits of mask wearing during the current crisis, even if small, far outweigh the potential costs.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for scientific literacy. The internet offers up a wealth of information for citizens to stay informed on issues related to science. Critical consumers of that information need to understand how scientific knowledge is generated and tested, and the role of scientific organizations in representing scientific consensus (Oreskes 2019). But they also need to be able to evaluate secondary sources that mediate the flow of scientific information to the public (Hӧttecke and Allchin 2020). BioInteractive has the tools necessary to foster our students’ scientific literacy by engaging them in authentic scientific activities and by providing them with skills necessary for evaluating science in the news.
AAAS. Vision and Change: A Call to Action. Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2011.
Allchin, D. “The COVID-19 conundrum.” The American Biology Teacher, 82, 6 (2020): 429–423.
Baylor College of Medicine. “Emerging infectious diseases.” Accessed May 16, 2020. https://www.bcm.edu/departments/molecular-virology-and-microbiology/emerging-infections-and-biodefense/emerging-infectious-diseases.
Bloom, D. E., and D. Cadarette. “Coronavirus: We need to start preparing for the next viral outbreak now.” The Conversation. Updated February 20, 2020. https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-we-need-to-start-preparing-for-the-next-viral-outbreak-now-132051.
Bromwich, J. E. “Fighting Over Masks in Public Is the New American Pastime.” The New York Times. Updated July 1, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/30/style/mask-america-freedom-coronavirus.html.
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Cheng, K. K., T. H. Lam, and C. C. Leung. “Wearing face masks in the community during the COVID-19 pandemic: altruism and solidarity.” The Lancet. Published April 16, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0140-6736(20)30918-1.
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Robert Cooper retired from Pennsbury High School, Fairless Hills, PA, where he taught biology (general, honors, and AP). Currently, he is taking online courses in biology to keep up with more recent developments in the field.
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