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The Great Pandemic

A while back a colleague and I did a wonderful unit in which we took kids to a local cemetery and asked them to look at the patterns they saw in the numeric data on the gravestones. As it turns out this cemetery was the place where most of the folks from the great flu epidemic in 1918 and another mild outbreak in 1929 were buried. The story of those years is told in the data on the headstones.

The way it works is that students are give a bit of background and a few simple behavior rules. We then walk to the cemetery  (about 3 blocks from the school) and with clipboards and paper in hand the students are grouped into teams of 5 to gather as much data as they can and to try to give us a better idea of the society that this group of former city residents lived in.

It does not take long for the students to use subtraction to figure out that many of the people buried in this cemetery are younger than they thought. In fact the average age at death in one whole quarter of the graveyard is under 25. The why behind this group of young folks who died early is a great science lesson.

When we get back to the classroom the students generally decide to group the data into numbers and ages. How many folks are under 10 who are buried in the cemetery? This does not yield very good data as the raw numbers do not tell us much. However, when the students look at age groups and years a pattern emerges.

There were lots of folks who died in all age categories in 1918 through 1920.  The number of folks younger than 25, who are buried in this cemetery, peaks in 1920 and then declines throughout the following decades. One group of students used a simple graphing program in EXCEL and the graphs tell an amazing story that integrates history and science. There were actually several viral outbreaks that show up in peaks in the graphs. Some cities may have other disasters that will help explain the peaks in specific years.
The science comes in as I can teach a fascinating unit on how a virus travels through a population. The great flu outbreak of 1918 is a good place to begin a study of epidemiology. Between 50 and 100 million people died during this outbreak. The disaster was the beginning of many current advances in disease control and prevention. There are several great web sites that tell the story from the historical side. The PBS site is particularly rich in video and visual information.

The biology behind how a virus works is full of great science content.

A virus enters a cell and uses the cell’s machinery to reproduce. This one fact leads to some rich discussions on the cell. Every biology student learns the parts of a cell and wonders when this will ever be important. To understand how a virus does its work means we have to understand how a cell is structured and how each of those structures functions. That is real life.

My favorite cell site is from “Cells Alive”. It is fully interactive and has lots of great visual links.

The discussions my students led and enjoyed ranged from cells to nutrition and from viruses to prevention and immunization.  NPR has a great You Tube video on how the flu infects your body.

The other strong link to understanding a pandemic is from the DNA side. There are lots of exceptional web sites to help you understand how DNA and RNA work.

DNA plays a huge part in how a virus replicates itself in your system. The content is high school but there are resources available on the web at each level. The logical sequence for me was to follow student interest through this inquiry activity. However, I did follow up with some depth in cell structure and function and virus anatomy.

The students in this activity had a great history lesson on their town; the names seem to come alive when they realize that the children, grand children and great grand children of these long buried folks are living in their city now. The names even form a pattern for discussion. It is the tombstones that show a person the same age as the students that seem to ground the activity in rough real life. Kids at this age seem to think they are never going to die. The sight of a group of tombstones where the pandemic of 1918 took so many young healthy folks from our city gives science a new credibility. The next time they hear about a flu virus you can bet there will be more hand washing in this class.

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