Colorado

Middle schoolers tackle epidemiology

Students use sticky notes and a kind of "brain mapping" system to determine what questions to ask to help local companies develop an epidemic response plan.

Stephanie Qi was just wiping her hands from a quick rinse in the bathroom sink when Brooke Garbarini accosted her.

“You call that washing your hands?” 11-year-old Brooke yelled. “You have to use soap! Was that hot water? You have to use hot water!”

There was an awkward silence from Stephanie, also 11, then Brooke continued her harangue.

“You have to wash the backs of your hands, between your fingers and your thumbs. Bacteria have a new generation every 20 minutes! You have to use soap to wash off the germs, and keep your hands under the hot water for 20 seconds.”

“And what happens if I don’t?” Stephanie shot back.

“You can get tons of diseases. You can get the flu, swine flu, SARS disease, staph infection, polio and diarrhea. There are millions of germs on your hands.”

Brooke carried on for another minute about the germs on the bathroom door handle, touched on the topic of the incubation of germs, and the threat of mutation caused by overuse of antibacterial soap.

And just in case Stephanie remained skeptical, at that point 12-year-old Shaina Levison and 12-year-old Jesse Zhang stepped out of two nearby stalls and did a little dance and sang a rap song about hand-washing.

Cut! Take five!

The “bathroom hand-washing scene” is just one scene in a movie these precocious youngsters are making to promote public health and educate other students about proper public hygiene.

Nearby, some other equally precocious youngsters are preparing for a presentation they’ll give to some Boulder businesses on coming up with an organizational response plan should an epidemic strike. What mitigation steps can the businesses take? How do they prepare for a worst-case scenario? How do they respond should an epidemic fell large numbers of employees?

The students, all rising seventh and eighth graders in Boulder-area public schools, have spent five weeks soaking up the heady academic atmosphere at a free summer enrichment program at the private Alexander Dawson School in Lafayette. The program – entitled “Epidemic, Past and Present” – ends this week. Sponsored by the Dawson Foundation Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, it brought in 31 high-achieving middle schoolers and immersed them in a challenging curriculum that included virology, disaster preparedness, history and the economic effects of outbreaks.

“Oh my gosh,” said teacher Valerie Keeney, who normally teaches science at The Pinnacle charter school in Federal Heights but who signed on to teach the science component of the epidemic program at Dawson.

“I’ve been teaching stuff I would teach high school sophomores,” she said. “These kids latched onto it immediately. The stuff they’ve come up with is seriously impressive. It blows me away that they’ve just come out of sixth and seventh grade.”

Students work to create a model of a hand for use in a hand-washing display.

While some students were learning about DNA and RNA and the differences in bacteria and viruses in the science group, others focused on math, doing computer modeling of how epidemics spread. A humanities group focused on a study of the history of epidemics throughout the ages.

They also had the chance to talk to some high-powered experts on the subject. Guest speakers included Boulder County health officials, a medical historian from the University of Colorado, and emergency preparedness experts from Exampla Healthcare and the University of Colorado Hospital.

They also spent time with journalist Maryn McKenna, author of Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA, an account of the dangers of drug-resistent staphylococcus.

“I thought she was trying to scare us a lot,” said Shaina Levison, a student at Heritage Middle School in Longmont, of McKenna’s visit. “But people need to be scared because if we’re not, we won’t learn what to do about it.”

Levison is part of the group of students now working to develop a public hygiene campaign. They’re aiming to create material appropriate for second- and third-graders. Among their projects — a movie, which they have written and will film themselves, and a hand-washing display featuring bacteria they’ve grown themselves.

Watch the students rehearse the hand-washing skit and rap song and dance they wrote.

“We’re not telling them what to do,” said Kevin Cloud, executive director of the Dawson Center. “They’ve listened to the pros, and they’ve learned that the best thing you can do is wash your hands. People already do that, but not well. They’re working on ways to present that information.”

Cloud figures that adults, too, can learn something from these super-smart kids. He’s recruited three local companies – a high tech startup, an industry group and a small manufacturer – to be guinea pigs for the students. They will study these businesses, ask them questions and put together customized response plans that the companies could initiate should an epidemic strike.

Students studying the history of epidemics created graphic representations of pandemics down through the ages.

“They’re not just a bunch of kids,” Cloud said. “They can do serious stuff. For the companies, there is no downside to this. If the resulting plan has value to them, that’s great. Or maybe they won’t want to use the document the students develop, but it may start a dialogue within the company.”

Above all, Cloud expects the students who participated in the five-week program to take what they learned back into their home schools come fall. There, they will impact the health of their classrooms by their example.

“One highly motivated student per classroom makes a big difference,” he said.

That’s something the youngsters themselves are certain they will do.

“I think we’ll take this with us wherever we go,” Levison said. “Stuff like how not to spread your diseases to other people. And I never realized before how medicines can hurt you. Did you know if you take medicines for a bug you don’t have, it can mutate?

“And if you’re taking antibiotics, and you don’t finish them all, the bug can become resistant to them,” added Qi. “This weekend, I’m going to the wilderness but I’m going to wash my hands a lot. From now on I’m going to wash my hands 10 times as much as I used to.”

Rebecca Jones can be reached at rjones@ednewscolorado.org.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.