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Infectious Diseases

We want to teach biology to high school students in a framework that is relevant to their lives. Disease provides this framework because it affects us all. In addition, educating students about disease will enable them to make informed choices about their health. Considering this, infectious disease is particularly relevant because of its continual impact on individuals and society; we can relate to the aches, pains, and fever resulting from infections, and these experiences can be used to engage students in real-life biology. The infectious disease module has been constructed around five key questions that an informed citizen will want answered in order to understand how infectious disease impacts them. The students will address each of these questions and then, for a final project, they will use them to understand an infectious disease of their choice.

Unit 1: Why should we care about infectious disease?

This unit is the ‘engage’. It introduces the student to the concept of the ‘infectious’ agent’, and to the idea of contagion. It shows how the unpredictability of an infectious disease can wreak havoc in a society, and leads us to the question – what do we need to know to predict the impact of infectious disease?

Unit 2: What does it mean to have an infectious disease?

When a group of people develops a set of symptoms, how do we know if this is an infectious disease rather than an environmental toxin? This unit focuses on the process of defining a disease as infectious, and highlights the difficulty and ambiguity. It also emphasizes the difference between correlation and causation.

Unit 3: When does a microbe become pathogenic?

In this unit we will grapple with the question: what is the difference between a microbe and a pathogen? First we will see that most microbes can be pathogenic if they are in the right location. Then we will explore the adaptations that allow certain microbes to bypass host defenses and become extremely pathogenic.

Unit 4: How do pathogens make us sick?

How does an infection lead to symptoms and illness? Here we will explore the mechanisms of host cell damage by microbes. This unit emphasizes how pathogens disrupt the structure and function of the host’s physiological systems.

Unit 5: How do we get better?

Most microbes don’t cause illness. In fact, the human body has ten bacterial cells for every human cell! So, how does the body maintain itself in a microbial world? In this unit, we will explore how the immune system marshals its resources to outwit bacteria, viral, and parasitic pathogens. We will then highlight processes that exceptional pathogens use to evade the immune response.

Final project

Students will use their new knowledge of infectious diseases to make a public health brochure about an infectious disease of their choice. The goal is for students to inform the public about each of the questions they have addressed in the previous units.