Simulations are a great way to engage your students in science content that they cannot otherwise access — whether it’s on a scale too large or too long, or simply if safety is an issue! I have used simulations to teach everything from natural selection and adaptation to seasons to the impacts of over-fishing. Simulations can be a great hands-on resource, and when done well, they can absolutely be minds-on as well!
I use a simulation on disease transmission to engage my students for my third instructional sequence in the Body Invaders unit on cells and body systems. This is a longer-than-usual engage task for me, I will admit. I try to keep engage activities (if you’re not sure what I mean, check out this post on the 5E Model) shorter so that students have more time for exploration.
Engaging Within A Unit
That said, this simulation set the stage for the rest of the unit by tying back to my initial anchor phenomenon and preparing them to connect what they were going to learn about body systems to the big anchor on flu epidemics. Spending some time to engage students in understanding the spread of disease made sense in this unit so that they could then understand how the body’s cells, tissues, organs, and organ systems work together to protect themselves from the disease.
Anyway, in the simulation, students model the transmission of viral disease by “exchanging fluids” (cups with either water or a starch solution) and then discovering who was exposed and infected, who actually became ill, and who skated by unscathed.
While this is a silly activity with cups and waving, there are so many parallels you can discuss with students in regards to real disease transmission. Remember that no model is truly accurate — they all have flaws. But we can use models (or simulations like this) to understand elements.
For example, at some turns, students simply wave at their classmates. They don’t exchange fluids – so their classmates are never truly exposed to the virus. This can help students recognize that viruses must be spread in some way through contact of some type — whether its particles in the air from a sneeze, contact with viruses on a surface, or direct body-to-body contact. Viruses don’t just magically appear in your body — there is contact of some type. That said, some viruses must be spread through a very specific type of contact (direct exposure to bodily fluids) while others can float airborne for some time and be breathed in – a more indirect approach.
Analyzing “Engage” Takes It Further
Additionally, through their analysis, students can explore topics related to immunity (whether natural or from vaccines) and how we track the spread of disease when that becomes necessary. If you have time and/or your students have the interest, you could easily extend this activity to tie to recent, real-world viral outbreaks (measles, sexually transmitted diseases, etc) and the importance of finding the “patient zero” for public health.
As I planned the launch of this instructional sequence, I could have simply shown my students a video, read a news article, or even (ugh) read the textbook. But I wanted them to be excited to learn about the body – and the important job all its parts do to work together to protect itself from body invaders – and I figured this simulation would be waaaaay more engaging — both as a fun hands-on activity that incorporates movement and group work AND as an authentic, intellectually-challenging activity that connects our science content to real-world issues.
You can check out Infectious Disease and Body Systems on TeachersPayTeachers, or if you’re a member of the Science Teacher Tribe Course + Community, just grab it in the Resource Library!