Skip to main content

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.

Societal issues with important connections to science such as COVID-19 (and other challenges like climate change) are part of a broader class of problems known as Socio-Scientific Issues (SSI). Our team works to create science learning opportunities contextualized in SSI with the goal of helping students develop scientific literacy and ultimately becoming better prepared for responsibly negotiating complex challenges. In response to COVID-19, we have partnered with severalĀ  high school science teachers to create a set of SSI-based learning activities to help students learn about the science of coronavirus while engaging in epistemic practices. We use the term “practice” to denote activity that requires both disciplinary ideas and skills. Practices, such as modeling and systems thinking, are designated as “epistemic” because they are knowledge-building.

Our long-term goal is to create an SSI-based module using the COVID-19 pandemic as the curricular anchor. The module will help students learn about 2019-nCoV and other infectious viruses, how they spread, what societies can do to limit their emergence and stem their spread. A key focus of the module will be student engagement in modeling practices as they make sense of the pandemic and how to respond to it. Eventually, the activities presented below will be coordinated in a well articulated progression that makes up an SSI-based curricular module. For now, we share the individual activities and encourage teachers to use them as they see fit (and let us know how it goes).

Check back for additional activities (throughout 2020) and the complete module by 2021.

Instructional Activities


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.

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

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: 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: 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 offers 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 COVID-19 KWL, Media Scavenger Hunt, and Media Links documents present related activities to help students build their media literacy skills.

Links to materials:

MIL Teacher’s Guide

Know Your Sources Tool

Evaluating Sources Presentation


Media Literacy Scavenger Hunt

Media Links

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

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

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



This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 2023088 – RAPID: Responding to and Emerging Epidemic through Science Education (REESE). 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.