Online course shapes COVID-19 curriculum in schools nationwide

A new and freely available online course aims to expose students to some of the practices being used by experts who are working on COVID-19. Credit: Penn State / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In February 2021, an interdisciplinary team of researchers at Penn State released an online course called "The Science of COVID-19." Led by faculty in the College of Education’s Center for Science and the Schools (CSATS), the course was designed to give middle- and high-school students an opportunity to learn about how scientists approach and tackle a novel virus. Since then, the free course has reached about 2,500 teachers and students in all 50 states in the nation, and plans are underway to modify the course so that it remains timely and relevant for years to come.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, CSATS faculty contemplated how they could provide teachers with educational tools to inform their students about the pandemic in a free, easily accessible format. According to lead developer Matthew Johnson, associate professor of education (science education), the online course was designed for teachers who were unexpectedly thrown into remote teaching and didn’t have COVID-19 educational resources at the ready.

“This was an opportunity to help teachers with curricular material that they don’t have the time or access to experts needed to develop these resources on their own,” said Johnson.

CSATS faculty work with Penn State researchers and their colleagues to develop, implement and evaluate STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) outreach programs by leveraging the research taking place at the University. Through collaborations with a team of scientists, CSATS was able to create an online resource that supports students learning about COVID-19 by engaging in the actual practices of researchers.

"The Science of COVID-19" is a three-module course that was co-developed with faculty in the Eberly College of Science, the College of Agricultural Sciences and the College of Medicine with expertise in virology, epidemiology and public health preparedness. Funded by a Penn State Social Science Research Institute (SSRI) seed grant, the introductory course allows middle and high school students to learn about COVID-19 through the lenses of these three distinct scientific fields. Students work through a virology module, in which they use publicly available genetic sequences and software to compare the new virus with other known viruses in order to identify SARS-CoV-2 as a coronavirus; an epidemiology module, in which they learn to model the virus’ spread, as well as how to plan and evaluate interventions to protect public health; and a public health preparedness module that gives them an appreciation for the rationale behind interventions aimed at flattening the curve. Through short content lectures and interaction with embedded online tools, students and other users can develop a better understanding of how pandemics are studied, modeled, prepared for and mitigated.

An advantage of the public health module, Johnson said, is that it enables students to “take a deep dive into their own location” by examining statistics such as the hospital capacity of their county, and by using data to systematically predict the number of severely sick patients to mimic the kind of work public health preparedness professionals do.

“(The course) gives students an opportunity to see what’s being done to protect the most vulnerable populations and what can be done from a teenager’s standpoint,” said Johnson.

Students who took the post-course assessment have indicated that they largely feel that they have benefited from the experience, he added. Results from the surveys show that 90% of students agree that their understanding of COVID-19 increased, 91% of the participants agreed that they have a better understanding of how researchers learn about a novel virus and 92% of the students would recommend for other teachers to use the course with their students.

In contrast to a traditional science curriculum that focuses on theories that were developed 50 to 150 years ago, Johnson said, the online course presents an opportunity to students “to learn about science as it’s happening.”

“(The traditional approach) makes science seem much more sterile, much more objective and more like a set of facts,” he said. “And science really isn’t that. Science is about trying to figure out what’s going on and why, and in this case, obviously, how to stop it.”

As of Aug. 26, Johnson said, course analytics indicated that the course had 2,423 unique registered users. Of those, 545 users were registered as teachers, 1,659 as students and 221 as “interested citizens.”

As part of an effort to expand and update the course, Johnson and his colleagues are in the process of submitting another grant through the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Their plan, he said, is to transform the course into a micro-learning app and “determine if doing the course in smaller bursts, in a gamified way, can help students learn better.” The modified course will also include discussion on COVID variants and how the virus evolves. In addition, Johnson said, the team plans to conduct educational research on how students “learn about cutting-edge science in an online environment.”

Looking toward the future, Johnson said, he and his colleagues expect that teachers will continue to use modified versions of "The Science of COVID-19" course from year to year.

“It doesn’t have to be utilized only in the midst of a pandemic,” said Johnson. “I hope (teachers) will be able to use (the course) in the future as a classroom resource where students can work independently and then have class discussion.”

COVID will be a relevant topic in schools for the next several years, he added, as even children who were in kindergarten in 2020 will have a lasting memory of the disruptions caused by the pandemic.

“The Science of COVID-19 module series will continue to be improved and will remain a free and accessible resource for many teachers and classrooms all over the world,” said Johnson.

Last Updated September 15, 2021