Coronavirus Lesson for Elementary Students


The COVID-19 global pandemic has led to major changes in our everyday lives, a situation that can be scary for both young people and adults. Understanding helps alleviate fear. This coronavirus lesson was designed to help young children talk about changes they have seen and heard about, learn the real story of how the coronavirus is spread, and take actions to protect themselves and their families.

This lesson is written in four parts; each part can be taught on its own. Because this lesson is written for K-5 students, you may find that the activities need more or fewer scaffolds depending on the grade-level you teach.

Materials (
Coronavirus Elementary Lesson PowerPoint Presentation
Which Way Stops Germs from Spreading? (Handout)

Task 1. Changes We’re Noticing

Students are noticing changes in their everyday lives that they may not have had an opportunity to talk about with their peers or adults in their lives.

Begin the conversation by sharing changes you have noticed – people in masks, strange greetings, empty shelves at grocery stores and lost of people cleaning. (You might substitute the pictures on Slide 2 with similar pictures taken in your area.)

Next, give your students an opportunity to share what they’ve seen and heard about changes caused by the spread of the coronavirus.

  • Ask students to turn and talk with a partner. Partner conversation supports are provided on Slide 3. You’ll notice the Responder sentence stem “I heard you say _____.” throughout the lesson; this is to ensure the speaker’s thinking is honored.
  • As a whole group, ask students to share their noticings or something their partner noticed. Record the students’ noticings and/or questions placing them into one of three (or four) categories (see Slide 4)
    • What is the coronavirus?
    • How do we protect ourselves and others?
    • When will things be normal again?
    • (Other)

You may want students to look for the pattern in the way you’ve organized questions, and then use that pattern to collaboratively label the categories.

Use the category “What is the coronavirus?” to navigate to the next task.

Task 2. What is the coronavirus?

Students may want to know more about the coronavirus – what it is and how it spreads.

You may start by asking students if they’ve ever had a cold or the flu. How did it make them feel? How long did it take them to feel better?

What is the coronavirus? Share the idea that colds, flu and coronavirus are caused by germs, tiny living things that invade our body and makes us sick. Germs are too small to see with your eyes or even a magnifying glass, but they can be seen using a microscope. (Slide 6)

Based on student questions from the first task, you may need to share some or all of the following information with your students:

  • COVID-19 is the short name for “coronavirus disease 2019.” It is a new virus [germ]. Doctors and scientists are still learning about it.
  • Recently, this virus has made a lot of people sick. Scientists and doctors think that most people will be ok, especially kids, but some people might get pretty sick.
  • Doctors and health experts are working hard to help people stay healthy.
  • Symptoms: COVID-19 can look different in different people. For many people, being sick with COVID-19 would be a little bit like having the flu. People can get a fever, cough, or have a hard time taking deep breaths.
  • Most people who have gotten COVID-19 have not gotten very sick. Only a small group of people who get it have had more serious problems. From what doctors have seen so far, most children don’t seem to get very sick. While a lot of adults get sick, most adults get better. If you do get sick, it doesn’t mean you have COVID-19. People can get sick from all kinds of germs. What’s important to remember is that if you do get sick, the adults at home and school will help get you any help that you need.


Before moving on to the next slide, make sure you let students know that not all germs make you sick. Some germs are even good for us like the ones in our digestive systems that help us get nutrients from the food we eat. (Yogurt has germs that can help keep our digestive system healthy!)

How are germs spread? Ask students how they think germs are spread (shared with other people). Take all ideas.

Watch The Story of a Germ from Sid the Science Kid ( Stop the video when the cartoon virus appears to remind students that germs are too small to see with your eyes. You might ask students, “Why do you think they drew the germ so big?” (The cartoon shows us the location of the germ which is too small to see.) “Do germs have eyes, mouths, and arms?” (Students might not know the answer; you may want to show them a real picture of a germ like this one found here: You may also ask, “Why do you think the germ is shown reading a book? (carrying that stick?) What do you think the person who made this model is trying to tell us about the germ?”  Finish watching the video.

Slide 8 offers some questions for reviewing the video. “How do you think germs on our hands get into our eyes, nose, and mouth where they can make us sick?” is suggested because it creates an opportunity to share with students touching our faces causes germs from our hands to get into our eyes, nose, and mouth which can make us sick.

Use the last question, “How can we get germs off our hands?” to navigate to the next task.

Task 3. How do we protect ourselves and others from getting sick?

Handwashing. Your students (and their families) might say they already know how to wash their hands, but recent studies show that over 95% of adults don’t wash their hands correctly! These studies were conducted in the United States, but the lack of proper handwashing world-wide led the creation of Global Handwashing Day (observed every year on October 15) in 2008. The goal of Global Handwashing Day is to increase awareness and understanding about the importance of handwashing with soap as an effective and affordable way to prevent diseases and save lives. (

Reporting of recent handwashing studies:

If your students tell you they already know how to wash their hands, ask if they would learn the song with hand motions to teach others (young children AND adults) how to wash their hands the right way. This empowers young people to take action in their families and communities to keep people safe.

Watch Raya and Elmo wash their hands ( The song they sing teaches young children to wash the front and back of their hands and in between their fingers. The length of the song is 20 seconds – the recommended amount of time for handwashing. Ask students to use hand motions while singing the song so you can ensure they are washing the back of their hands and in between fingers.

Sneezing and Coughing Etiquette. Show students the picture on Slide 12. Ask students what they think is happening. You may give students 1-3 minutes to write their ideas before turning and talking with a partner. The partner conversation supports on Slide 13 are slightly different than the ones on Slide 3. Both the Speaker and Responder should support their ideas with evidence from the picture (which may be connected to evidence from their own experiences). You can support the conversations by asking students, “Can you point to the place on the picture that makes you say that?” Reveal or confirm the picture is a sneeze.

Which way stops germs from spreading? The Which Way Stops Germs from Spreading? A formative assessment probe is an opportunity for students to put their ideas about the coronavirus (germs) together. Ask students to circle the ways people can stop germs from spreading (alternatively ask students to cross out ways that won’t stop germs from spreading). Ask students to share their thinking on the back of the probe handout. Students may use words, drawings, and symbols to represent their ideas.

  • If students choose A and D, share that doctors and scientists agree that sneezing into a tissue or elbow can help stop germs from spreading.
  • If student choose B,
    • look carefully at their thinking. Does it include washing their hands after sneezing into them? If this is the case, ask students what would happen if they didn’t have any soap and water (or hand sanitizer).
    • Does their thinking only include stopping or catching the sneeze? Ask students what might happen next. (Alternatively, ask students what they might do if someone wanted to shake their hand or hug them after they sneezed). This may lead students to consider another choice.
  • If students choose C,

What are the ways we greet people? Many of the ways we greet people involve direct contact – hugging, kissing, and shaking hands to name a few. The elbow bump has become popular, but since people are sneezing and coughing into their elbows the CDC recommends this practice stops. Even the foot bump (see Slide 1) is out because it brings people too close together.

Ask students to think about all the different ways they greet people (say hello, goodbye, or I love you) with and without speaking.

  • Ask students to first think about greetings by themselves – we refer to this individual thinking time as the Alone Zone – and to write each greeting idea on a separate sticky note, index card or strip of paper (whatever you have available).
  • Move students into small groups. Ask student to share their greeting ideas with each other. After all ideas have been shared, tell students to put all of the greetings people could use to keep germs from spreading into a pile. Then ask each group to be ready to share what all of the greetings in the pile have in common with the whole class.
  • Transition students to a whole-class discussion. Ask groups to share what greetings in their won’t-spread-germs piles have in common (greetings made without touching, greetings made from a distance, etc.). Make sure students understand we only need greetings in the won’t-spread-germs pile when people in their family or community are sick.

Task 4. When will things be normal again?

Note: This task is built around the practice of Developing and Using Models and student discourse. You may want to first introduce or remind students of classroom norms before engaging in this task. OpenSciEd ( has a set of classroom norms that well-support students in sharing ideas.

In Task 1, students may have shared the noticing that they can’t play, hang out or learn together. (They may also have heard the term “social distancing”.) In this task, students will use models (  to figure out why they have to stay near home.

Share the first model with students (first model on the webpage). Ask students, “What do you notice or wonder about this model?”  (Start with the simulation off, then let it play for a few seconds while students are making observations.)

Tell the students, “We’re going to watch what happens when an imaginary germ spreads in a town of 200 people who are playing, hanging out and learning together.” Play the simulation two or three times. Ask students what pattern(s) they noticed (people start healthy, everyone gets sick, and then everyone recovers).

Share the last model on the webpage (one of every eight people move). Tell students, “Now we’re going to watch what happens when the imaginary germ spreads in a town of 200 people who are mostly staying at home. Scientists call keeping close to home social distancing.”

Ask the student how this model is similar to the first model (start with the simulation off, then let it play through while students are making observations). Record the similarities. Play the simulation again, this time asking students to notice differences between the first and second models. Record the differences students observe. You may need to run the simulation 2-3 times.

Ask students to turn and talk to a partner to answer the question, “How do these models help explain why scientists are asking us not to play, hang out, or learn together?” Share the partner conversational supports on Slide 24 with students. As you listen to partner conversation, remind students to use the models and the similarities and differences list (evidence) to support their thinking.

Bring the class together for a building understanding discussion. Start by asking students to share their claims. As each student shares their claim, ask them to share evidence from the models that support their claim.

Some questions you might pose to the class to encourage critique and student-to-student interaction include:

  • Does any group have evidence to support Group A’s claim?
  • What data do we have that challenges Group B’s claim?
  • ______ and ____ made similar claims. Did you have the same evidence?
  • ______, what do you have to say to _____ about her idea? It sounds pretty different from yours.

To conclude the building understanding discussion, consider using the following prompt:

  • What can we conclude about how these models help explain why scientists are asking us not to play, hang out, or learn together?

(See additional guidance from OpenSciEd 3 Discussion Types)

Continue to look for patterns in the rate of spreading and locations of new cases to gather additional evidence to support the claim that social distancing slows the spread of coronavirus through communities and decreases the number of new infections (

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Mole Hills Out of Mountains

I would like to find some time-efficient way to have students share their learning or their observations with me (individually) without having to take in two classes of science notebooks.
—J., Ohio

“School should not be a place where young people go to watch old people work.”
—Cris Tovani

You are not required to correct and grade everything a student does. Giving formative feedback is necessary, but you can reduce the workload while not diminishing students’ learning.

Assign written work on exactly what you want students to have learned. Whether you ask them to make observations, draw conclusions, or reflect on their learning, you will get what you need without having to read entire notebooks.

Mark notebooks only periodically. Students can even self-assess their work using a rubric that you supply. My teaching was revolutionized many years ago by an online rubric maker ( which allowed me to better manage notebook assessments among other activities.

Peer assessment is an excellent learning strategy that also reduces your work. Analyzing and discussing their classmates’ work can be a powerful learning experience for students. Consider incorporating peer feedback into almost everything your students are doing. This can be done in pairs or in groups, but you will need to spend some time teaching them how to do these assessments. Small, colored slips with guiding questions are very useful and can be attached to reviewed pages. These colored papers are easy to thumb to in a notebook for quick checks.

Hope this helps!

Photo credit: Niklas Bildhauer via Flickr

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Stimulate Science Learning with Student Debates

The new NSTA Press book It’s Still Debatable! Using Socioscientific Issues to Develop Scientific Literacy by Sami Kahn gives students plenty to discuss. For educators looking to develop their students’ thinking skills, help them dive into scientific content, and provide ways for them to explore real-world issues, this book is the perfect resource.

It’s Still Debatable! presents the Socioscientific Issues Framework, which uses debatable, science-related societal questions to address science content and teach students how learn to apply the content as they become informed citizens.

“SSI is a research-based, interdisciplinary approach that enlists higher-order problem solving, argumentation, and research skills to analyze challenging, contextualized scientific concepts and issues,” Kahn explains in the book’s introduction.

The framework incorporates activities designed to improve students’ discourse and social skills, build their character, and help them to make connections to other academic subjects and disciplines. It gives students practice in the research, analysis, and argumentation necessary to grapple with difficult questions with roots in the life, physical, Earth, and environmental sciences.

“Through SSI, teachers help students acquire flexibility, open-mindedness, and perspective-taking abilities so that they can integrate content knowledge with real-world deliberation,” Kahn explains. “In short, SSI prepares students for science-related decision making in an ever-changing global society.”

The book supports the Next Generation Science Standards and links to the Common Core State Standards, National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies, and C3 Framework through 14 thoughtful lesson plans.

In the lesson “Leave It to Beavers,” students must consider whether to relocate a beaver dam by examining the manner in which beavers change their environment to survive by building dams and lodges.

First, students will do an engineering design challenge, working together as a beaver family to build and test a dam. Then, with their newly-acquired knowledge about beaver anatomy, behavior, and survival needs, students will debate whether a beaver dam that is causing flooding in a town should be left alone or moved.

The lesson includes background information and resources, guiding questions, connections to standards, a suggested schedule and sequence, and ideas for going deeper using real-life experiences in the local community.

In “Monkey Business” students question whether or not we need zoos. First, they will take virtual tours of zoos and wild spaces, and then learn about animal behaviors and relationships between parents and their young.

They will investigate arguments both for and against zoos, and develop their own position posters. As animals are often a favorite topic for elementary age youth, this will prove to be an exciting and engaging project that encourages students to think critically about the role of zoos in our society.

Get more stimulating lessons like these and watch students come alive in the classroom through healthy and spirited debates about the world around them.

Read the free sample chapter Unit 1: Introduction: It’s Debatable! for the Next Generation.

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How Can You Assess the Science Your Children Are Doing and Learning?

A guest post by Cindy Hoisington (, an early childhood science educator and researcher at Education Development Center Inc. in Waltham MA; Regan Vidiksis, a researcher at Education Development Center with a focus on STEM teaching and learning in early education environments; and Sarah Nixon Gerard, an education researcher at SRI Education with a focus on early learning. Welcome Cindy, Regan, and Sarah!

Chances are, since you are reading this blog, you know how important early science experiences are for children’s future learning and achievement. You know they promote children’s critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity; nurture children’s interests in science; and fuel their developing science identities (Center for Childhood Creativity, 2018). But are you sometimes challenged to figure out what children, especially children between the ages of 3 and 8, are actually gaining from the science experiences you provide in your early childhood (EC) setting? Assessing young children’s learning in science can be a complex process, especially in physical science—a domain that many teachers are less familiar with than life science. 

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The Vernier Go Direct EKG Sensor: The Heart in Action

Go Direct EKG sensor and leads

The human heart has hidden treasures, In secret kept, in silence sealed; The thoughts, the hopes, the dreams, the pleasures, Whose charms were broken if revealed.

Or so wrote Charlotte Brontë in the poem Evening Solace. The warning of charms being broken if revealed, I’m guessing, is about the emotional content of the metaphorical heart, not its electrical activity measured in millivolts over time. So with that out of the way, lets jump in.

The EKG or electrocardiogram measures electrical activity during a heartbeat. Basically the EKG (or ECG) provides a visual display of the heart’s activity somewhat the same way an electrician uses a multimeter to diagnose a circuit. Overall, the EKG is part of the field of electrocardiography which also includes the EKG sensor, the electrocardiogram, and of course the study of the EKG data.

EKG wave
from Wikipedia

Vernier Software and Technology makes two education-class EKG sensors. While the operation and form factor of both is the same, one is hardwired only while the other transmits over Bluetooth or hardwire. The added feature of running wireless is presumably why the Vernier Go Direct EKG sensor costs one dollar more compared to the standard EKG sensor.

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Branches and STEM

I want to know if there are ways to incorporate [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)] into more or all subjects? How would a teacher begin to integrate English or social studies with STEM?
—M, Arkansas

Children do not come to school with brains divided by subjects—we compartmentalize the subjects for administrative reasons. To help students become well-rounded I strongly believe that we should teach all subjects in an integrated manner. STEM attempts to bring together similar subjects that should rely on each other. However, we can’t even begin to teach these subjects without communication, also known as language arts. When you add social context, societal issues, ethics, and geography to STEM lessons, you have incorporated social studies. And don’t forget about the arts!

Here are some concrete ideas you may want to consider:

Foster written communication by incorporating reports and journaling activities in place of fill-in-the-blank worksheets. Reinforce verbal communication through discussion groups where students can use new terminology, brainstorm ideas, and share conclusions about data they collected. Teach students the dos and don’ts of slide show presentations and have them present research projects, lab results, pictorial essays, and more to the class.

Students can overlay data on maps, plan and discuss environmentally friendly development, debate issues and ethics related to science and technology (e.g. where to place wind-turbines, the use of pesticides or genetic manipulation, terraforming other planets, and more) to incorporate social studies.

Throughout all of this you can encourage creativity by integrating art, design, music, and movement as methods of demonstrating understanding.

Hope this helps!

Image credit: OpenClipart-Vectors via Pixabay

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Equity in STEM Education: It’s All About Culture!

Guest post by Alicia Santiago

When you think about diversity, how does it show itself? When you stand before your students, do the faces looking back at you look like your own? Most likely, your answer is “no.” Classrooms and afterschool programs are becoming more culturally, ethnically, and linguistically diverse, which is leading to both challenges and opportunities for educators.

Often students and educators do not have the same cultural, ethnic, or social background. Why does it matter, and how can you bridge this disconnect? The cultural divide between educators and students can seriously impede teaching and learning. Educators use their own cultural and experiential filters to communicate instructional messages to students; in many instances, those filters are incompatible with the students’ cultural filters. Have you considered how your culture influences your students?

Culture plays a huge role in education and in everything we do. Culture shapes our values, beliefs, social interactions, worldview, and what we consider important. It also influences how we see ourselves, how we see our students, how we relate to them, what we teach, and how we teach. It is important to recognize that culture is central to teaching and learning, as it plays a key role in communicating and receiving information, and is vital in sparking interest and effectively engaging students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

A way for educators to span the cultural divide between them and their students is to build bridges using culturally responsive practices and creating inclusive learning environments. Educators who approach science teaching and learning with a culturally responsive pedagogy (CRP) are effective in bridging that cultural divide. Culturally responsive educators challenge the stereotypical deficit thinking of diverse students (e.g. “culturally deficient,” “at risk,” “low-performing”) by considering cultural differences as assets, valuing students’ strengths and skills and acknowledging each student’s potential.

So how do we engage diverse students in culturally responsive and appropriate ways? Cultural responsiveness is about developing genuine and trusting relationships with students and validating their strengths and interests. A first step to develop these relationships is getting to know your students as individuals and learning about their culture. Find out their interests and the way they operate at home and in their community. This also will help you better understand how to connect STEM to their lives and make learning experiences relevant for them.

To learn about students’ culture, we first must understand our own culture and how it affects the way we relate to students. Educators often believe that they can be neutral and objective, but their life experiences and cultures (e.g., values, assumptions, and beliefs) impact how they relate to students. Sometimes these assumptions and beliefs manifest as implicit biases, which could negatively affect students. We all have implicit biases: attitudes or stereotypes that influence our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious way. We need to examine our sociocultural identities and become aware of and challenge our unconscious biases to better understand ourselves and effectively communicate and work with students.

Another key aspect of CRP is creating an inviting, inclusive learning environment. In such an environment, students believe their contributions and perspectives are valued and respected. They feel that they belong. This positively impacts students’ interest and motivation in STEM.

The need to belong is a basic human need that influences our behavior and motivations. When students feel that they belong in the learning environment, they feel connected to and accepted by their peers and teachers. They feel validated in a way that is accepting and positive, which increases their engagement and motivation. In an inclusive learning environment, educators use teaching strategies that accommodate students’ needs in terms of learning styles, abilities, backgrounds, and experiences.

Analyzing the type of environment you created for your students is a great way to begin transitioning to an inclusive learning environment. For example, do your students feel empowered and capable of discussing concerns or challenges with you or their peers? How do your teaching practices foster a learning community in which each student is valued and considered? What strategies do you use to support diverse learners?

Culture is a key element of every learning environment. It shapes both the learning environment and the experience of each student. Cultural responsiveness is a powerful approach that allows educators to improve STEM engagement and equity. Whichever strategies you use to make the learning environment more inclusive, remember to remain sensitive to and flexible about the ways diverse students think, behave, and communicate. This will help create a supportive learning environment in which students are motivated to learn, and allows them to grow intellectually, socially, and emotionally.

Alicia Santiago, PhD, is a neurobiologist and a cultural and diversity consultant with more than 10 years of experience in informal science education. She collaborates with Twin Cities PBS to develop and implement innovative direct and mass media science and health education national-level programs for the Latinx community. She can be reached by e-mail at

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.

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Building STEAM With Model Railroads

Are you a science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) teacher seeking a new way to interest students in these subjects? While model railroading is not a new hobby, STEAM teachers can accomplish learning goals while introducing it to a new generation of students.

Students at the San Diego (California) Model Railroad Museum explore STEM concepts like scale by building a 3-D model of their community.

“Over the last 25 years, model railroading has been going through a significant change from relatively simple analog electronics to more complex digital electronics,” says Greg Maas, a member of the Amherst Railway Society in Palmer, Massachusetts. “Now trains can run independently of [one another] because of the microprocessors installed in the locomotives. And those microprocessors have to be programmed and fine-tuned, which brings mathematics into the arena. Digital electronics has added the whole world of sound to model railroading. LED lighting has brought even more realism to the hobby. Wireless communications and internet technology have made it possible to run trains with a smartphone.”

Maas also points to “the shift to building model railroads in sections that conform to track and electrical specifications (modules). Then modules can be combined to form a working model railroad.” Model railroad modules, he contends, “are ideal for high schools and middle schools where space is limited. It is relatively easy to take modules apart and store them in limited space. Yet in building modules, students are learning and using all the model railroad skill sets.”

Many model railroaders believe “it is important to include the A (Arts) in STEM education. Scenery planning, design, and execution [are] an important part of model railroading that often takes a back seat to the technology. It shouldn’t,” Maas maintains.

Julia McMeans, director of education for the San Diego (California) Model Railroad Museum, has developed preK–8 STEAM programs for the museum. As a former elementary and middle school teacher and K–12 curriculum writer, McMeans notes that while model railroading is not part of content standards, it has “meaningful connections with content standards,” the Common Core and the Next Generation Science Standards. She says her programs “are designed to support and enrich and extend what teachers are doing in school,” providing “standards-aligned experiences for students” that many teachers can’t do because of a lack of time and resources.

In the Working With Scale program, for example, students in grades 6–8 build scale models “to address the math that rail modelers would use,” McMeans explains. Students measure their scale models “and use math to scale real-life objects up and down. For example, we scale the Statue of Liberty down to a factor of 1:15. They can see the real-world implications of how scale would be used,” she asserts.

Students in grades 3–8 in The Able Arch and the Trusty Truss program learn about the physical science and history of arch and truss bridges and what makes arches and triangles so strong, “why those shapes are attractive to civil engineers,” McMeans relates. K–2 students in Communities Then and Now: Making a 3-D Model explore model train layouts of the past and present to learn about science topics like friction, the shape and stability of structures, and properties of matter, along with social studies and history. “They build an actual 3-D model of their community,” she notes.

The museum has free resources at that teachers can use in conjunction with a museum visit or as a supplement in their classrooms.

More Curriculum Connections

Stacey Walthers Naffah, president of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, model railroad supply company Walthers, suggests other STEAM topics students can learn through model railroading. “Electrical currents make trains move, something that kids can actually see. Speed can regulate movement in a miniature world just as it can in the real world,” and students can control it “through a digital controller…People can run their railroad like a real one. Wiring a layout for operations helps to create a truly great model railroad.”

Model railroading teaches students about how things work, such as gears in a locomotive or steam engines versus diesel engines. “Students can see things in miniature and take things apart to see how they work,” says Walthers Naffah.

To make a scene look realistic, knowledge of depth of field is required. “It gives the illusion you can see far off in the distance because you don’t have unlimited space [in a train layout],” Walthers Naffah relates.

Students also learn about city planning. “Discovery World [Science and Technology Center in Milwaukee] developed a curriculum for a summer camp called Design Your City…In one week, kids designed and created a small city,” as model railroaders do for their layouts, Walthers Naffah reports. Creating scenery brings in art, “which is a very valuable skill,” she asserts, and the teamwork and collaboration the children experienced while working on the city helped develop those soft skills.

In addition, students learn about “the economics of our country and how railroads are a part of it, moving people across the country and moving food and other goods. There’s a lot to learn about how things are moved around, and the importance of railroads in connecting our country,” Walthers Naffah contends.

She suggests teachers visit the World’s Greatest Hobby website, which features free resources on model train basics.

Blaine Holbrook, treasurer of the Salt Lake City Northern Utah Division and Rocky Mountain Region Director of the National Model Railroad Association, runs the Pizza Box Model Railroad Group for children and their families. “We give kids extruded foam and a track, and they can use their imagination and build” a train layout with scenery, he explains. “It’s a wonderful family activity.”

One STEM-related thing children learn is “we had to start cooperating with nature. You don’t put tunnels on steep inclines due to erosion, [for example]…Conservation, where to plant trees, how mountains are formed can all be incorporated into the build,” he contends.

“How much track do you need? [That brings in] math, circumference,” Holbrook notes. The extruded foam that children work with “lasts a long time and can be reused and recycled easily,” which offers a lesson on the environment.

At group events or during Holbrook’s school visits, children can learn skills like 3-D printing, airbrush painting, design, and planning. Creating scenery allows children to learn about shapes, carving and soldering (with adult supervision), and painting, among other skills. “Building is how students get creative and think,” Holbrook maintains.

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.

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Medical Schools Offer STEM Pipeline Programs

In Newark, New Jersey, Rutgers New Jersey Medical School offers Science, Medicine, and Related Topics, a pipeline program for underrepresented students interested in careers in medicine, dentistry, biomedical research, and other health-related careers. Photo credit: Keith Bratcher, New Jersey Medical School

Teachers and students seeking additional learning opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) with a health care orientation can often look to their local medical schools for precollege STEM pipeline programs. Held both on medical school campuses and offsite, these programs are geared toward engaging students in STEM early on and giving students—especially underrepresented students—extra support in pursuing STEM majors and careers, including health care careers.

In Newark, New Jersey, for example, Rutgers New Jersey Medical School (NJMS) offers Science, Medicine, and Related Topics (SMART), a pipeline program for underrepresented students interested in careers in medicine, dentistry, biomedical research, and other health-related careers. “We hold a Winter Academy for students in grades 6–12 and a Summer Academy for rising students in grades 7–12,” says SMART Program Administrator Mercedes Padilla-Register. Held on the NJMS campus, SMART is open to all New Jersey students, with preference given to students living in or near Newark.

The Winter Academy, which takes place on Saturdays, focuses on infectious diseases and public health. It features NJMS faculty—“scientists, doctors, nurses, or dentists”—who serve as guest lecturers to “inform students about their specialty,” explains Padilla-Register. “We try to invite faculty who look like the students and have the same background.”

Recently a New Jersey Institute of Technology faculty member shared his experiences in studying to be an engineer in the gas industry. “We want to expose students to science careers in general, not just in medicine,” Padilla-Register points out.

State-certified science teachers and medical students serving as teaching assistants also lead students in hands-on activities in applied science and technology, with a curriculum aligned to state standards. “The medical students are closer in age to the students, and they inspire students with their own stories of living and going to school in Newark. They provide mentoring and extra help to students,” Padilla-Register relates.

Many students go on to participate in the Summer Academy, and students can take both academies every year through 12th grade. “In the summer, we switch up the speakers so there are no speaker duplications,” notes Padilla-Register. The Summer Academy also includes educational field trips, community service (for 11th and 12th graders), and college and career counseling.
Participation offers “a boost in the daily curriculum, which is good for disadvantaged students who might not be exposed to the content in their schools. There is time for hands-on activities like dissections,” which may not be offered in school due to lack of time and/or resources, she contends.

“Most SMART students graduate high school and go to college,” reports Padilla-Register, “with about half continuing in science and medicine.”


Florida State University College of Medicine (FSUCOM) in Tallahassee has an outreach program called Science Students Together Reaching Instructional Diversity and Excellence (SSTRIDE) for middle and high school students in five counties, “serving a diverse group of students, but mainly African American, Hispanic, and rural. SSTRIDE was created…to address the disparity between the need for minority and rural physicians and the pool of qualified applicants,” says Thesla Anderson, SSTRIDE’s founder and FSUCOM’s director of Precollege and Undergraduate Outreach Programs.

“We identify students with an interest in science, math, and health and provide support for them to succeed in preparing for graduate or medical school. We not only help them academically and socially, but also help with their leadership and professional skill development,” Anderson explains.

“We have students as a captive audience for the entire school year, one class period every day. It’s an opportunity for us to intervene in their lives to help them love learning and provide an innovative and engaging science curriculum,” Anderson emphasizes. “There is a reduced class size of 15 to 20 students enrolled in each SSTRIDE class, depending on the district. Our goal is to develop a well-rounded student.”

Students are chosen based on recommendations from their seventh-grade science teacher, guidance counselor, or principal; a minimum 3.0 GPA; and an interest in a five-year commitment, “and they have to love science and math. This is not a remediation program,” Anderson maintains. Many students, she notes, “are the first in their family to go to college.”

SSTRIDE has a “progression of science classes and a newly developed leadership course. Each district chooses the progression of courses (only one class as part of their schedule each year),” Anderson explains.

“We recruit undergraduate, graduate, pre-med, and medical students to work with teachers in the classroom, and each group of students is assigned a graduate student or undergraduate premedical student mentor [who serves] as a teaching assistant,” says Anderson. “SSTRIDE teachers use only our curriculum, which covers biology, chemistry, Introduction to Health Science, anatomy, and leadership,” she relates.

“SSTRIDE also offers in-school and afterschool tutoring; grade monitoring, so that when a student’s grades fall below a B, an intervention plan is developed;…field trips, guest speakers, and academic banquets; community partnerships with doctors, hospitals, businesses, clinics, community colleges and universities (to recruit mentors), and other organizations; standardized test preparation from the ACT and SAT to the MCAT; and a professional externship for high school seniors. We collect formative and summative data, and we advise students interested in medicine and all pre-health fields,” she reports.

“[Most] (97%) of SSTRIDE students go to college, and 65% choose a health and science major,” Anderson notes.

Starting Early

When medical students at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell in Hempstead, New York, attended a presentation by the dean called Obesity as an Epidemic, “[i]t was eye-opening for the students; it inspired them to want to do something” about obesity prevention, recalls Catherine Bangeranye, assistant dean for Diversity and Inclusion and assistant professor of science education. “Students wanted to do community outreach.”

“They wanted to [work within] the Hempstead School District and give back to the community around the [medical school],” adds Janice John, assistant professor of science education.

The medical students worked with Bangeranye, John, and Gina Granger, Zucker’s community outreach liaison, to create Healthy Living Long Island (HLLI), a curriculum for third graders. HLLI is based on the American Academy of Pediatricians’ 5210 guidelines advising children to eat 5 or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day, devote no more than 2 hours to recreational screen time, participate in at least 1 hour of physical activity, and drink 0 sugary drinks each day. HLLI also was adapted from “Let’s Go!,” an obesity prevention initiative in Maine. Third grade was chosen because “it is a good place to start because of their developmental understanding,” explains John.

HLLI begins with a school assembly for third graders at Barack Obama Elementary School in Hempstead, New York (the first school in the program, which is now in its second year). After introducing themselves and HLLI in the assembly, the medical students subsequently visit third-grade classrooms four times during the school year to present mini-lessons on the 5210 curriculum covering exercise and healthy eating.

After two of these classroom visits, the third graders take a field trip to the medical school to do “four interactive stations that reinforce the 5210 concepts” and involve “experiential and active learning,” says John. During the field trip, “we have medical students, scientists, and physicians interacting with the third graders,” John notes. “It is an opportunity for us to see how well students are learning the concepts.” So far, she reports, “our methods have [proven] to be successful. Students are able to deeply understand the concepts.”

The program is longitudinal. “Third graders will be followed for two years. [We’ll have a] brush-up to reinforce the concepts, and reassess them to see if they’re retaining the concepts” in fourth and fifth grade, says John.

“One unexpected benefit is that our medical students become role models, [helping third graders] see what is possible for them: a range of careers in health care and science. As we engage them, we are aware that we are influencing young minds,” says Bangeranye. “Once the seed is planted, we can follow them to see if they go into other pipeline programs.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.

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Being Shielded to Avoid A Safety Pickle!

I. Demonstration Hazards

A common demonstration that science teachers have used over the years is titled “The Electric Pickle.” It illustrates the fact that when an electric current passes through a salt solution, the sodium ions will emit a signature yellow light; AKA – a yellow lighted pickle. As interesting and motivating as it can be for students, there is the potential of this being a very hazardous demo. For starters, a live 110-volt current is being used.  Given the risk of electric shock, make sure any power receptacle being used is ground-fault circuit interrupter or GFCI protected! There is also the risk of explosion.  Like many other science laboratory demonstrations, there can be a high element of safety hazards and resulting serious risks for both the teacher demonstrator and the student observers. Before considering such demos, teachers must do a hazard analysis, risk assessment and determine the resulting safety actions to be taken for a safer outcome.

II. Hierarchy of Controls for Hazards!

The resulting safety action results from the Hierarchy of Controls ( The first and highest level of controls involves “elimination (including substitution)” or removing the hazard from the lab, or substitute (replace) hazardous materials with less hazardous ones.

Secondly, “engineering controls” include equipment and processes that reduce the source of exposure.

Thirdly is the use of “administrative controls” which alter the way the work is done, like work practices such as standards and operating procedures (including training, housekeeping, and equipment maintenance, and personal hygiene practices).

Lastly is “Personal Protective Equipment or PPE.” This is equipment worn by individuals to reduce exposure such as contact with biological, chemical or physical hazards.

III. Focus on Safety Shields

A number of lab accidents that take place during demonstrations result from lack of a safety shield being used between the demonstration and the student observers. One engineering control which is often ignored but could potentially reduce or eliminate accidents and serious injuries is the use of a safety shield. This is clearly stated in the NYC Safety Manual (Grades K-12) on page 10: “Place a safety shield between the students, yourself, and the demonstration.” (

For example, in the electric pickle demo, a Plexiglas panel or shield should be used between the electrified pickle and the student observers for added protection. Also know that if laboratory procedures call for a safety shield, then safety glasses or goggles (as appropriate) must also be worn. Finally, if appropriate, use a face shield. Portable safety shields can provide limited group protection against hazards such as chemical and/or biological splashes, explosions, impact and fires.

Use of a fume hood may be the safer alternative. Laboratory equipment/chemical apparatus need to be shielded on all sides. In this way, no line-of-sight exposure to laboratory occupants can take place. Both the vertical and horizontal fume hood sashes are designed for use as a safety shield to protect against spills and splashes. Keep the hood sash closed as much as possible. However, be aware that fume hood sashes may not provide protection against explosions, implosions, and flying objects. Sashes constructed of safety glass can minimize injuries from embedded glass. Always wear splash goggles, and use a full face shield in using a fume hood if there is possibility of an explosion or eruption.

III. Final Note

Bottomline is – Before doing a demonstration or experiment, also do a hazard analysis, risk assessment and adopt the appropriate safety actions. This includes the Hierarchy of Controls. Remember to especially use appropriate engineering controls as needed like a portable safety shield or fume hood with an operational sash whenever there is potential danger that an explosion or implosion of an apparatus might occur.

Submit questions regarding safety to Ken Roy at or leave him a comment below. Follow Ken Roy on Twitter: @drroysafersci.

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