Coronavirus Meets…Physics? Making a Biological Topic Fit into a Physics World

Author: Stephanie Duke, Physics Teacher and Science Department Chair at Graves County High School in Mayfield, KY

If you heard about a high school science class completing a unit on the novel coronavirus, you’d probably assume it was a biology class. That’s where students learn about viruses, right? Not always. I just completed a unit of study about the novel coronavirus in (drumroll please) PHYSICS. This unit called for students to research using “language” instead of “numbers” as we typically do in physics. We had a rich discussion regarding the characteristics of resources that are considered to be reliable and less-reliable, and the public response to the hysteria. 

The Setup: Before I even introduced the lesson, students were already talking about/asking questions about the coronavirus in class. They had concerns. Could they die from the coronavirus? If so, could this virus wipe out entire communities?

I didn’t want to simply tell students about the coronavirus; I wanted students to do investigative research. The novel coronavirus unit was a good avenue for students to directly see the difference between reliable and less-reliable sources of information. Several students had fallen victim to misinformation from social media, such as Facebook, or information obtained through Google and Wikipedia that was inaccurate or false. 

I presented the phenomenon (coronavirus) to the students through actual news footage from ABC News’ YouTube Channel, which made the clip relevant. Immediately students knew what to do based on their prior experience in other lessons and units: They observed the phenomenon, recorded their noticings and wonderings, and asked questions. Excellent questions.

What They Did: The coronavirus lesson created opportunities for students to develop and use elements of the science and engineering practice of obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information in the following ways:

  • Critically read scientific literature adapted for classroom use to determine the central ideas or conclusions and/or to obtain scientific and/or technical information to summarize complex evidence, concepts, processes, or information presented in a text by paraphrasing them in simpler but still accurate terms.
    • Compare, integrate and evaluate sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a scientific question or solve a problem.
    • Evaluate the validity and reliability of and/or synthesize multiple claims, methods, and/or designs that appear in scientific and technical texts or media reports, verifying the data when possible. 

Students compared the number of cases of coronavirus to the number of flu cases. They knew people got sick from the flu, but this exercise caused students to stop and pay attention. The map of confirmed coronavirus cases made the coronavirus real for them. They could SEE it.

What I Saw: At the onset, I did have a handful of students who were not in favor of us moving away from our plotted path through our physics syllabus. Some kids asked, “This is physics. What does the coronavirus have to do with physics?” Once we began digging deep into available resources such as the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, they were hooked and engaged in the lessons. 

As a science teacher, it’s easy for me to notice the science ideas in situations like the coronavirus. The layout of the coronavirus unit goes beyond the typical science focus and addresses social bias. Without these cues, I may have overlooked the human side of the coronavirus outbreak. My students immediately picked up on this issue on day one, with no less than one group in every class pointing out the poor treatment of anyone of Asian descent since the virus outbreak. Students shared the idea that we treat people badly based on their outward appearance or because of where they were born. People from China aren’t prone to getting the coronavirus due to their genetic make-up; the virus just happened to originate in their homeland.

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.  Again, it’s physics. They have less experience researching with “words” than they do with “numbers” in my world, so this unit further sharpened their investigation skills. Kids struggle with reading scientific texts and pulling out relevant information. In this situation, students NEEDED information from the text to better understand this “thing” they keep hearing about on the news. The need for information brought purpose to reading the text.

I was also pleased to see that my 16- and 17-year old students appreciated my push to investigate phenomenon in prior units, letting them explore their own questions, and that the coronavirus unit allowed them to continue to investigate even after putting away the graphing calculator. 

At the close of the unit, students were much more cognizant of their hygiene. I heard students telling each other to wash their hands and cover their mouths (sneezing and coughing) after they engaged in this lesson, but I’m not yet sure this will stick with them in the coming weeks.

This unit made both physics and science in general applicable to them; the kids “got” how science, along with fact-checking, can drastically impact their daily lives. They also got a real-life lesson on the impact of sensationalism and unreliable sources. It wasn’t a typical physics lesson, but the principles were still very much there.

Additional Resources

Check out our learning center collection for free materials that you can use in our classroom right away.
Report from NBC on emergency declared
CBC Explainer
Wikipedia page
Flu worldwide CDC
Flu is deadlier
WHO video explainer:
Complete genome:
WHO Dashboard:
Blog Post: Leveraging Science in the News
Lesson Plan: Novel Wuhan Coronavirus: What’s the Real Story?

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