When life gives you COVID...
How science educators can incorporate the pandemic experience as a learning tool
I think it is fair to say that when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, most people are now in a fervently out, out damn coronavirus! period of their lives. We all want an absolute end to the changes that the deadly/scary/bad virus forced upon us; we want to live our lives as we did before.
While entirely understandable, I have come to think that there is a counter banish COVID stance science communicators might, and maybe should, adopt. I have slightly jokingly taken to calling it: “Let’s make ‘covid-ade’ out of COVID.”
I say this because one of the unintended consequences of the virus is that children – particularly teenagers – have been exposed to how science works when scientists are trying to understand and deal with something which never existed before. All kids personally – I think that should probably be personally – have seen the contradictions between trying to understand the nature of a virus, prevent its spread and still live a stressless life statistically and objectively.
Accordingly, they have also lived through the reality that there often seems to be no absolute answers to the contradictions which are generated when trying to understand some new thing scientifically. I think that should probably be written no absolute answers.
So, what you have is a new pedagogical reality.
For the first time, you can imagine a high school class in which teenagers might be given a science course where they are being taught about statistics, probability, uncertainties and the arcane rest and might – sorry to speak so much in italics but that should probably be a might – really want to learn what is being taught. That is, statistics will cease to feel like a mathematical punishment, a pedagogical bench on which many students feel they are being mentally whipped by teachers armed with numbers.
Instead of telling students that these are things experts think are important for you to know, you use class time to explain COVID issues that were and likely are still confusing to students.
In this framework, COVID moves from being just a scary virus to what you might call a branded kind of teaching.
Imagine a scenario where teachers don’t instruct from the top down but rather begin by asking students personal questions. Questions like: what can your COVID experience teach you about how science works? What would you have liked to have been better explained to you? And maybe most significantly, did you feel a relationship to the COVID statistics and how you, your family, and your friends felt they should lead their lives?
Some more specific examples of topics that might be presented are:
- How does science determine where a new disease comes from and how it is spread? Statistically, how do scientists know it was found in a Chinese market and didn’t escape from a lab? How does where it comes from change how people deal with it? Did you care?
- How do you know which preventative strategy to adopt? Specifically, and statistically, why did hand-washing become an afterthought? When and why did masking become a necessity? And what does that change tell you about absolute scientific certainty? And if you didn’t always wear a mask, why not?
- When and why did it become clear that some drug treatments were effective, and others weren’t? Again, was that understanding absolute or relative? And if the latter, what does that again tell you about scientific certainty in general? Did any of you try any strange treatments? Did you check on their statistical effectiveness beforehand?
- What is the relationship between vaccinations’ preventative effects and what doesn’t work or does other things? Included in this are side effects and people becoming sick with things like heart conditions and Bell’s palsy. But also, what does it mean if people get infected again? What do both tell you about people being nervous about being vaccinated in the first place? How does one integrate a statistic – a relative number – into the absolute non-number that is everyone’s life? Do you think that with this confusion there should be a certain amount of if not respect, then of understanding for anti-vaxxers?
- How can science tell politicians when to stop things like self-isolation and masking or when to start them all over again? How much statistical verification is enough proof? What’s the fair relationship between collective economic loss and better personal health?
There are more potential topics, but the general principle is, as I said at the top, a simulacra of the life-giving-you-lemons-and you-making-lemonade paradigm. In this case, life gave everyone COVID fears but maybe schools can turn that negative into an educationally positive “covid-ade.”
I introduce the concept to SWCC members because curriculum development is not something I have any experience in, but nonetheless it seems to me to be a perfect place for science communicators to lend their skills to science educators. What is obvious about the proposal is that it has to be done quite quickly because in a few years it will be quite literally passé in young people’s life experiences.
Accordingly, I conclude by (without any italics) reiterating my thesis: Someone or one’s of you should swiftly turn high school students’ sour lemon COVID experience into a positive, if not truly sweet educational “covid-ade”.
Author bio: Stephen Strauss is a long time science writer, originally at The Globe and Mail but afterwards in many other places. His journalistic motto are the terse words of German writer Karl Kraus: "Say what is."