Teaching the Coronavirus: Strategies for Science Instructors

Given the widespread uncertainly and anxiety caused worldwide by the coronavirus pandemic, it’s important for educators to be prepared to respond to students’ natural curiosity and assuage their anxiety. Science educators would be wise to incorporate issues about the coronavirus into lesson plans and help students better understand an important force shaping the world right now.

COVID-19 education requires more than facts and data. Educators must be especially sensitive to students’ social and emotional needs as well. Students at all grade levels may experience fear and uncertainty about their safety. They may even have family members who were or are sick or who have lost jobs during the pandemic. Because people are more physically isolated from others during this time, students may be especially vulnerable.

Find the Angle

While a virus is generally a topic for biology class, teachers across multiple science disciplines have found ways to incorporate COVID-19 into lessons. For example, Stephanie Duke, science department chair at Graves County High School in Mayfield, Kentucky, developed a unit for her physics class around the virus. The goal of the lesson is to help students learn to evaluate news and information about the virus, using critical thinking to distinguish credible information from misinformation.

In a blog post, Duke noted that completing the lesson taught students how to approach problems outside of physics: “There is a common pattern in physics. We ask questions about experiences (phenomenon) we have together, determine reliable ways to collect data related to our experiences, and attempt to make sense of this data through various avenues. Basically, kids analyze and interpret numbers (quantitative data) and use that knowledge to explain relationships.”

Teachers of chemistry, environmental science and other disciplines might also find ways to relate relevant aspects of the coronavirus and consider making time for open-ended, non-academic discussions regarding mental health and well-being before or after lessons.

Engage 3D Learning

Lessons around coronavirus are likely to inherently capture three-dimensional learning, which the National Science Teaching Association states “requires student learning be driven by the need to explain phenomena and/or design solutions to problems.” The most effective lessons will encourage students to think deeply about how to ask questions about the virus, evaluate data related to those questions, and consider how they relate to other areas of science and the humanities.

Scott Johnson, a teacher of anatomy and physiology at Century High School in Bismarck, North Dakota, created a lesson about the respiratory system that incorporates news stories and magazine articles about the coronavirus. The lesson prompts students to ask questions to activate critical thinking skills and cross interdisciplinary boundaries.

Incorporate Scientific Ethics

Scientific ethics can be a useful bridge between emotions and academics, providing opportunities for middle and high school students to grapple with the large-scale questions the virus poses. Students’ questions about mask-wearing, social distancing, individual responsibility and the country’s healthcare system all lend themselves to ethics-framed discussion and offer safe spaces for them to form their own ideas and opinions.

The New York Times developed an exercise, designed for students 13 and older. The project asks: “What weaknesses and strengths about our world are being exposed by this pandemic?” The prompt invites students to consider examples from their own lives and communities, then expand that lens to consider the nation and world. The Times also lists specific articles students can read to gather information for their response.

Other questions the Times offers that lend themselves to scientific ethics inquiries include:

  • What role should leaders, in government and elsewhere, play during a crisis like this one?
  • What are the causes and effects of this pandemic?
  • What future effects can you predict, whether they happen in days, weeks, months or years? What data, facts and reliable sources influence your answer?

If you are an experienced educator, learning more about instructional design and curriculum development in a graduate program in C&I can prepare you to tackle issues that impact education. Coursework in Eastern Washington University’s Master of Education – Curriculum and Instruction online program gives educators insight into transforming processes through the lens of diversity and equity. Through the internship requirement of the master’s program, they can apply what they learn in the program to real-world settings.

Learn more about EWU’s Master of Education – Curriculum and Instruction online program.


National Science Teaching Association: Transitioning from Scientific Inquiry to Three-Dimensional Teaching and Learning

EdSurge: What Science Classes Are Teaching Students About Coronavirus

Edutopia: Innovative Ways to Make Coronavirus a Teachable Moment

The New York Times: What Weaknesses and Strengths About Our World Are Being Exposed by This Pandemic?

The New York Times: Coronavirus Resources: Teaching, Learning and Thinking Critically

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