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The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented global health emergency. It offers an example of why scientific literacy, conceptualized broadly to include science concepts, the nature of scientific evidence, and ideas about how science works (Roberts & Bybee, 2014), is so critical. We contend that it is essential for science education to support all learners in exploring complex issues like the COVID-19 pandemic. Learning experiences should help students develop science understandings associated with these issues and how science can inform solutions and personal decision-making.

This socio-scientific issues based unit includes learning activities to guide students through epistemic practices around infectious viruses, viral transmission, and the role of society and science during such emergencies. Using COVID-19 as a curricular anchor, the unit is sequenced through eight activities featuring opportunities for learners to engage in modeling practices, systems thinking, and argumentation.

Major Themes of the Unit

  • Viral transmission
  • Media literacy
  • Data analysis
  • Argumentation
  • Scientific and mathematical modeling for learning and reasoning

Driving Questions

  • How do viruses such as COVID-19 spread?
  • What is the responsibility of governments, organizations, and individuals in mitigating the spread of deadly viruses?
  • What challenges do social vulnerabilities present as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?

NGSS Connections

Science & Engineering Practices

  • Asking questions and defining problems
  • Developing and using models
  • Analyzing and interpreting data
  • Engaging in argument from evidence
  • Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

Crosscutting Concepts

  • Systems and system models
  • Cause and effect: Mechanism and explanation
  • Scale, proportion, and quantity
  • Structure and function
  • Stability  and change

Overview of the Unit

The unit is made up of 8 lessons that will likely take about 10-15 hours of instructional time. The Unit Overview document describes the lessons, identifies learning objectives, and provides time estimates. Individual lessons are described in more detail, and associated materials are provided in the “Instructional Activity” section below. We have created Teacher Guides for the activities that provide rationales for many of the design decisions made and suggestions form implementation.


Instructional Activities


Purpose: The purpose of this activity is to highlight the inherent complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic. This activity asks students to create a system model of the various social and scientific factors that impact (and are impacted by) COVID-19. Students will explore positive and negative correlations, direct and indirect relationships, and how these maps can be used to predict how changes to one component will impact other components along the map.

Links to materials:

Systems Mapping Presentation

Systems Mapping-Teacher Guide

Developed by Li Ke, Rebecca Rawson, and Troy Sadler, with support from REESE Teachers and Staff.


Purpose: In this activity, students use a mathematical model, programmed within a spreadsheet (Google Sheets), to explore viral transmission and exponential growth. It enables comparisons of viruses with different reproduction numbers (R0) numerically and graphically. The activity challenges students to think through various implications of the model and to consider strategies for reducing R0 for a virus and the associated impacts and viral transmission.

Links to materials:

The model for student use and supporting questions.

Article about viral spread. This article, written by epidemiologist Joseph Eisenberg, presents an accessible overview of the intensity of viral transmission and the the calculation of R0.

Model of Viral Spread Teacher Guide

Developed by Troy Sadler, Jordan Rockett and Taylor Tidwell with support from REESE Teachers and Staff.

Purpose: In this activity, students explore structural and functional features of the COVID-19 virus and soap molecules through a VOX video. Students will explore why viruses are not simply rinsed away by plain water and how soap destroys a virus on a molecular level. Students will also learn how hand sanitizer works, and the advantages of soap over hand sanitizer. The activity then challenges students to engage in argumentation as they defend the claim, “Washing your hands for 20 seconds with ordinary soap is an effective way of combating COVID-19. (Image credit:

Links to materials:

Handwashing activity

Handwashing Teacher Guide

Developed by the REESE project teachers and staff.

Purpose:For this activity, students analyze data to evaluate the effectiveness of masks in reducing the transmission of COVID-19. Students examine scientific evidence from mask experiments and use the results to justify their reasoning. In the extension activity, students learn about the math behind masks: why mask effectiveness largely depends on collective compliance. The worksheet questions guide students through interactive, online simulations that explore the rate of virus transmission with and without masks. Based on what they learned about masks, students reflect on steps they can take to slow the spread of Covid-19. (Image credit:


Links to materials:

Data Analysis: Face Masks

Mask Activity Teacher Guide

Developed by Dan Miller, Jessica Plato, and Jamie Elsner with support from other REESE project teachers and staff.

Purpose: For this exercise, students use a computational model developed within Netlogo. The model provides a simulation of how social distancing can impact viral spread. The materials provide teachers and students with an orientation to the simulation and a series of prompts to guide experimentation and prediction with the model.

Links to materials:

Student activity sheet

Video introducing the Netlogo simulation

Netlogo simulation

Extension activities

Infection Curve Simulation Teacher Guide

The Netlogo simulation along with the video were developed by Jacob Kelter from Northwestern University. The learning activities were developed by Brandon Wagner, Pat Friedrichsen, Christy Darter, and Tanner Oertli with support from REESE Teachers and Staff.


Purpose: In this activity, students interpret COVID-19 data from the United States, Italy, and Switzerland, analyze the data in relation to government policies, and draw conclusions about policy implementation and COVID-19 cases. This exercise pushes students to think critically about the government role in responding to the pandemic and the resulting consequences of government action or inaction. This activity prepares students to develop their own policy proposals by considering implications for public safety, economic repercussions, and political forces at work when implementing COVID-19 precautions and policies in the general public.


Links to materials:

Comparing National Responses: Student Worksheet

Comparing National Responses Teacher Guide

Developed by the REESE project teachers and staff.

Purpose: We are inundated with information about complex issues like COVID-19. Some of that information is accurate and helpful, some is politically motivated, some is deliberately misleading, and these descriptions just skim the surface of the ways information might be categorized. The purpose of this set of activities is to help teachers and students develop better media and information skills particularly in the context of Socio-scientific Issues.

The Teacher’s Guide presents an overview of the materials and offers some suggestions for promoting media and information literacy. The Know Your Sources Tool and CRAP Test offer questions for students to ask of their information sources as they become more savvy consumers of media. The Evaluating Sources Presentation offers PowerPoint slides to share basic principles and strategies for information literacy. The Media Literacy KWL, Media Scavenger Hunt, and Media Links documents present related activities to help students build their media literacy skills. Finally, we have adapted a Nature of Science Activity to highlight the tentative nature of scientific knowledge in the context of the COVID-19 issue.

Links to materials:

Media Literacy Materials

Media Literacy Presentation

CRAP Test Resources

Know Your Sources Resources

Nature of Science Resources

Media Literacy Teacher Guide

Another link to materials we found helpful for supporting MIL (but that we did not create):

Developed by Andrew Kinslow, Eric Kirk, Sarah Apple, Abigail Nahlik, and Rhiannon McKee with support from REESE Teachers and Staff.

Purpose: In this activity, students use scientific evidence to identify health disparities, investigate social determinants of health, and propose policy solutions related to a Covid-19 case study. Students will gain an understanding of challenges that some people may face in accessing COVID-19 testing sites by illustrating these challenges in a storyboard. In the Take Action activity, students will write a letter to a local representative about a COVID-19 issue that impacts marginalized groups.

Links to materials:

Social Vulnerabilities and COVID-19 Student Materials

Social Vulnerabilities & COVID-19 Teacher Resource

Social Vulnerabilities Teacher Guide

Developed by Jamie Elsner and Rebecca Rawson with support from REESE staff.


Purpose: This activity serves as a unit assessment and challenges students to express their knowledge about the biology, epidemiology, and complex social issues of the COVID-19 pandemic. It should not be considered a stand-alone assignment. Instead, the assignment is designed to serve as a summative assessment for a COVID-19 unit that incorporates assignments that cover the biology of viruses, infection curve simulations, different methods of managing the virus, media literacy, and systems thinking. To use this lesson as is, it is recommended that educators utilize the supporting lessons on our page to provide students with the necessary background experiences to be successful. While the assessment in its entirety will make for a rich learning experience, it can be modified to suit the needs of individual classrooms. Certain lessons may be omitted with small modifications to the assignment. (Image Credit:


Links to materials:

Culminating Activity Handout

Culminating Activity Teacher Guide

Developed by the REESE project teachers and staff.


Additional Resources & Activities (not included in the COVID unit)

Purpose: Issues like the spread of a deadly disease and how we as a society should respond to it are complex, are informed by multiple ways of knowing, and may impact different groups of people differently. For instance, in the case of COVID-19 the scientific community provides vital information about the virus, how it reproduces, strategies for stemming the spread, etc. Other factors such as local economic pressures and politics also shape decision-making about how to respond to the pandemic. The “Multiple Perspectives” activities are designed to help students think about different domains of knowledge relevant to COVID-19 and how different potential solutions may have differential impacts on people with different interests or circumstances.

The first activity is a graphic organizer, the “Star Chart,” designed to help students summarize and organize information about COVID-19 from different knowledge domains. The second activity encourages students to create “Multiple Perspective Maps” that show how potential solutions may be experienced differently by people with different perspectives. It is often helpful for students to complete a Star Chart to help prepare for the creation of a Multiple Perspectives Map.

Links to materials:

Star Chart

Multiple Perspectives Map

Developed by Clayton Elmy, Li Ke, Eric Kirk, and Molly Ewing with support from REESE Teachers and Staff. The original Star Chart developed for a different SSI-based module was created by Amanda Peel and Hai Nguyen.

Purpose: Students regularly consume media; this activity challenges them to also create media. Engaging in media creation requires carful consideration of content, representation, and design. This activity can help students understand key dimensions of media literacy including how authors shape their messages for different audiences, how media formats impact the message, and the importance of sourcing materials.

As a part of the activity, students read a long-form article about the COVID-19 pandemic. Then they are challenged to create a shortened media account for a different audience such as their high school peers, younger students, family members, or members of their community.

We have identified a few articles that could be used as a starting point for this assignment (in the link below), but they could be easily substituted if a teacher wanted to select material that was more accessible or relevant to their students. (Image credit:


Links to materials:

Media Creation Project Description

Developed by Kate Sheppard, Troy Sadler, and the “Fake News/Real Science” Instructional Team at UNC-CH.

These materials were created as a part of the Responding to an Emerging Epidemic through Science Education (REESE) project. We thank the talented group of teachers and researchers who came together on short notice and challenging circumstances to develop these activities.


REESE Teachers: Sarah Apple, Christy Darter, Clayton Elmy, Andrew Kinslow, Rhiannon McKee, Abigail Nahlik, Jordan Rockett, Taylor Tidwell, Brandon Wagner, and Melissa Wessel

REESE Project Staff: Troy Sadler, Pat Friedrichsen, Laura Zangori, Li Ke, Molly Ewing, Rachel Juergensen, Eric Kirk, and Tanner Oertli


Sadler, T. D., Rawson, R., Kirk, E., Elsner, J., Ke., L., Apple, S., Elmy, C., Huber, D. H., Kinslow, A. T., McKee, R., Miller, D., Platto, J., Rockett, J., Wagner, B., Friedrichsen, P., & Zangori, L. (2021). COVID-19: A model-oriented issues-based science unit [Curriculum]. Chapel Hill, NC: School of Education University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.



This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grants No. 2023088 – RAPID: Responding to and Emerging Epidemic through Science Education (REESE) and No. 2101083 – Learning about Viral Epidemics through Engagement with Different Types of Models. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Support has been provided by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education and the University of Missouri College of Education. We thank Ms. Marjorie Buckley for establishing the Thomas James Distinguished Professorship in Experiential Learning, which helped make this project possible.