Sahar Alameh, Ph.D., is on a mission. She wants to prevent today’s middle and high school students from facing a common regret in adulthood — wishing they had paid more attention in school.
Such regrets can emerge when a lesson from a long-forgotten class becomes relevant years later. In hopes of reversing the phenomenon, Alameh is developing a science curriculum based on events faced by teens today.
What is going on in the lives of teens relating to understanding RNA, DNA and identifying living versus non-living organisms?
Sometimes the answers are right under our noses.
More than two years into the pandemic, some of today’s students may not remember school prior to COVID-19. Many have been part of quarantined sports teams, wearing masks to class and moves to online remote learning.
“The students are not just watching COVID-19 play out on the news. The students are living it,” Alameh said.
Alameh’s project is designed to evoke interest in the science behind pandemic-related issues debated in schools and communities across the U.S. and around the globe. The curriculum sets middle and high school students up to act as “disease detectives,” and their investigation will focus on a novel source — wastewater.
Wastewater testing is a non-invasive way to track disease prevalence in places such as college residence halls, nursing homes and school buildings. People infected with the coronavirus shed it in their feces, even if they are not symptomatic. If levels of SARS-CoV-2 rise in wastewater testing, decisions can be made about how to best mitigate additional spread in the population.
Since the early days of the pandemic, a group of UK faculty members have been acting as real-life disease detectives, collecting wastewater and breaking samples down to test for COVID-19. They are now ready to take their work on the road in a white Ford van outfitted as a mobile wastewater testing facility. While providing wastewater testing and training in rural parts of Kentucky, they will visit schools to get students excited about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
“Wastewater testing has seen limited use in the past as a public health surveillance tool, but the COVID-19 pandemic has brought newfound interest in the approach due to its ability to monitor infection trends without extensive clinical testing,” said UK College of Medicine Assistant Professor of Family and Community Medicine James Keck, M.D.
Keck, along with Scott Berry, Ph.D., an associate professor in the UK College of Engineering, are leading two grant-funded research projects involving the detection of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater. Alameh, an assistant professor of STEM Education, is a co-investigator leading an offshoot project from the grants — developing curriculum for middle and high school students.
“Students will begin to see that science is not something that is removed from society at all. Science is ingrained in nearly all things and this project creates a perfect opportunity for us to talk about the nature of science and how socio-scientific issues affect our day to day lives. High-quality curriculum should not just be interesting. It should come from a felt need. This is what we call problem-based learning and what more of a problem is this,” Alameh said.
Ensuring the lessons are a good fit within teachers’ existing curriculum is a key target of the project. Alameh and UK STEM Education Ph.D candidate, Sagan Goodpaster, are also working with five middle and high school science teachers to review the lessons for their applicability. Together, they are examining the Kentucky standards for teaching science, biology and chemistry and integrating the knowledge students are required to learn, outlined in those standards, into the new lessons being developed around wastewater testing.
“The five teachers are helping evaluate whether the lessons are something they think other teachers would want to implement. We need to ensure there would be a time and place for them in the existing curriculum,” Alameh said. “They are offering suggestions on all components of the lessons. For example, they might say the way we explain virus modeling is too advanced for middle school, so maybe we can teach it another way instead.”
Alameh, who taught high school for seven years prior to working in higher education, worked with the Markey Cancer Center on a similar project, reviewing a science curriculum developed about cancer to ensure it aligned with Kentucky standards.
“By showing students content based on real life topics facing their families like cancer and COVID-19, students begin to see that science is what brings us the information that impacts decision-making. With the coronavirus, if they test wastewater at a school and start to detect very high results, what happens next? Do we close schools or not? Put mask mandates in place? Reinforce washing hands? Those little things we usually see in social media and news, they are always so controversial. But we forget the back story happens because of science,” Alameh said.
Students will learn how sewer lines are accessed by scientists to collect wastewater and how samples are prepared, as well as have a chance to analyze slides themselves in the van. All samples used with schools will be contrived and therefore safe to handle.
Divided into six lessons, the program starts by asking students to consider what viruses are, whether they are alive, the difference between living and non-living things and what defines life. They will also learn about the structure of viruses and develop a more in-depth understanding of COVID 19, focusing on what sets it apart from other viruses. Lessons also cover how soap and water kill viruses, and how viruses hijack host cells. Students will also explore how viruses spread and the idea of using wastewater to test the prevalence of COVID-19 in a community.
The culminating project has students write a report connecting public health decision-making with wastewater surveillance. Alameh is also working with Anna Hoover, Ph.D., assistant professor in the UK College of Public Health Department of Preventive Medicine and Environmental Health, to tailor lessons to the public health decision-making process.
“Students will have a chance to say ‘now that I get the science, now that I understand what viruses are and how they spread and now that I have learned about wastewater testing, this is how I think this information can inform the decision-making process,’” Alameh said.
This summer, the participating teachers will meet for professional development sessions where they will talk pedagogy, content, go over materials and have a chance to discuss what works and doesn’t work for them.
“It’s a learning process for all of us,” Alameh said. “I know from my time as a high school teacher that if a researcher comes to you in isolation, you won’t always be able to implement the curriculum in class unless it fits within existing needs. You don’t want to add to the teachers’ loads. They are already doing a lot. But on the other side, you cannot in these times talk about viruses in biology class and not mention the coronavirus. It is exciting to build a curriculum around a topic that is already at the forefront of teachers’ and students’ minds. Science impacts politics, day to day life, society and it even goes into the personal level and influences how families interact. These are conversations we need to embrace. We cannot shy away and say it is politics. That’s why we call them socio-scientific issues. There are a lot of driving forces around them.”
As a faculty member in the College of Education, Alameh’s research stems from the question “What is science?” and this project will help inform her work. Students, as well as their teachers, will take a test and fill out a survey before they begin the lessons on wastewater testing. After completing the wastewater curriculum and turning in their final paper, they will take the surveys again.
“We are testing whether students’ views related to COVID-19 will change after having a front-row seat for hands-on exploration of the disease. We also want to see if their performance on the scientific concepts test shows a correlation with their opinions about science and coronavirus. And, we are curious to see if their understanding of the nature of science will be influenced after participating in this project,” Alameh said.
Understanding the nature of science is an integral part of students gaining scientific literacy, Alameh said. She will be testing to see if participants understand how cultural and social values can influence interpretation of data. It is also important for students to understand that knowledge they come to know now, such as that the earth is round, was developed through scientific methods, Alameh said.
“Often, we have years of evidence that support testable explanations. Before we learned what oxygen is, we didn’t know oxygen is needed to make something burn, but now we have years of evidence to prove it. However, science is tentative and can change when new evidence comes in. Particularly when we are dealing with something new, we must adjust and be ready to make new decisions,” she said.
Alameh said the pandemic has given everyone the opportunity to watch science evolve in real time as new information is gathered. The process likely has contributed to a distrust of information, since it seems to be changing and updating continuously, Alameh said.
“I hope this project will help us gauge how an understanding of the nature of science –that scientific explanations is tentative until new evidence arrives — influences opinions about COVID-19,” Alameh said.
Alameh hopes her research will, ultimately, contribute to helping students improve their ability to understand scientific phenomena, as well as explain their reasoning to others.
To learn more about become a STEM Education teacher, visit education.uky.edu/stem