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Infectious Disease: Superbugs, Science, and Society…A High School Course in Biology

A Note to Teachers
Effectively treating infectious disease requires more than just an understanding of science. While biology may dictate how the human body responds to infection, it doesn’t do justice to the larger victim of disease: society. The fabric of economy, ethics, politics, and culture that compose our world determine how diseases are spread, who gets treated – and why. Throughout this course, we hope to emphasize that disease is as much a social phenomenon as a biological one with ramifications for both the individual and their family, neighbors, and fellow citizens. Through this larger perspective, we hope to illuminate disease in a way that relates directly to student’s lives, showing them that biology operates both under a microscope and in their daily interactions with the world.

The SENCER Approach
The interconnectedness of science and the surrounding world is the motivating philosophy of the Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities (SENCER)  program. This National Science Foundation initiative aims to change the undergraduate science curriculum by examining science disciplines through the lens of larger, immediately relevant public issues. Through this interdisciplinary approach, complex science is rendered in an exciting, relevant, and complete format. According to the SENCER “Ideals”, the approach:

  • robustly connects science and civic engagement by teaching “through” complex, contested, capacious, current, and unresolved public issues “to” basic science.
  • invites students to put scientific knowledge and scientific method to immediate use on matters of immediate interest to students.
  • reveals the limits of science by identifying the elements of public issues where science doesn’t help us decide what to do.
  • shows the power of science by identifying the dimensions of a public issue that can be better understood with certain mathematical and scientific ways of
  • conceives the intellectual project as practical and engaged from the start, as opposed to science education models that view the mind as a kind of “storage shed” where abstract knowledge may be secreted for vague potential uses.
  • seeks to extract from the immediate issues, the larger, common lessons about scientific processes and methods.
  • locates the responsibility (the burdens and the pleasures) of discovery as the work of the student.
  • encourages student engagement with “multidisciplinary trouble” and with civic questions that require attention now. By doing so, SENCER hopes to help students overcome both unfounded fears and unquestioning awe of science.

As educators in Duke’s RISE (Raising Interest in Science Education) office in the Department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology, we wondered why such an approach should be confined to undergraduate education. High school students need innovative science courses just as much – or maybe more – than their collegiate peers. Research has certainly reported the view that teaching students through the SENCER approach leads to improved results in the classroom.

The ‘Superbugs’ Course Structure
With these principles in mind, we developed Infectious Disease: Superbugs, Science, and Society as a high school elective course, particularly for specialized health sciences high schools. In the interest of covering a distinct variety of biological disease and social issues, the course is divided into six modules: HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, Malaria, Bioterrorism (i.e., Anthrax), Avian Flu, and Prion Disease. Though each module considers a distinct type of infectious agent, unifying themes include treatment/maintenance approaches, resistance challenges, and historical/ethical considerations. This course is designed to place the students in the active role. Although the format is flexible, lecture time should ideally be kept to a minimum. Further, each module opens with a case study that directs the students in their investigation into the material. Embedded in the fictional narrative of a group of high school students investigating infectious disease, these case studies should provoke student-driven inquiry into the content. Also included in each module is a list of suggested supplementary classroom activities.

The ‘Superbugs’ course has been thoroughly reviewed by high school teachers serving as members of our advisory committee. They provided useful advice concerning the relevance, clarity, interest, and feasibility of the course.  We hope you and your students find ‘Superbugs’ to be a rewarding experience.

The ‘Superbugs’ Development Team
Rochelle D. Schwartz-Bloom, PhD; Professor of Pharmacology, Project Director
Nicole Kwiek, PhD, Post-doctoral Fellow, Project Assistant Director
Joseph Babcock, Duke Undergraduate Student (2007); Course designer & author extraordinaire
Senmiao (Mimi) Zhan, High School Student & RISE Fellow (2007); Course artwork designer, writer & editor

‘Superbugs’ Funding
‘Superbugs’ was developed with funding by a SENCER grant from the National Center for Science & Civic Engagement (National Science Foundation).