The Covid Classroom: Getting the Message Out

By Chrissy Dilley, High School Science Teacher and Curriculum Coordinator

When I first designed the Advanced Topics in Biology course four years ago I knew I wanted to create something that helped students see the connections between the topics in a textbook and the world of learned and lived science around them. This first began with a deep dive into the ethical, ecological and evolutionary impacts of CRISPR. That summer you could not open the New York Times without seeing a CRISPR-related headline. Students created a mock town hall to educate their peers about this new BioTechnology and wrote mock research proposals read by alums and parents who work in the medical and genetics fields.

Fast forward to 2020. Nary a moment went by that SARS CoV-2, aka the Coronavirus, did not creep into our minds. As aspects of public health became politicized, the public was asked to call upon their own understanding of science to determine what was safe, how the preventative measures protected us and how the vaccine could protect them and others. Never has a teachable moment presented itself so clearly.

This course has been teaching about bacterial infections and antibiotic resistance for a few years.  This year we needed to include viruses and more about our immune systems for students to be able to decipher the messages they were receiving about preventative behaviors and to learn about how the body responds not only to the illness but also to the vaccine. Grounding the science in their world has been a priority of this class from day one, so I asked students to complete a K/W/L chart on the first day of this unit. A K/W/L chart is a space for students to identify what they Know going into a unit or lesson, what they Want to know and to then later reflect on what they learned after a reading or discussion. We spent almost an hour just collecting and sorting through what we knew, or thought we knew and what more we still needed to understand. An eagerness to learn developed and students came to the following class sharing research they had done to try to address some of our questions. It became clear to them that understanding what was happening in the body during an infection was important and they again called upon their own experiences with infections, including Covid-19, to unpack the biochemistry involved in a systemic immune response.  

As we decided on topics to explore one thing became obvious, other people needed to know what we knew. Nearly everyone had a story to share about a neighbor, the kids they babysit, their grandparents, not knowing why to wear a mask or the importance of soap and long handwashing.  But the biggest news was around the vaccine. Headlines about the vaccine RNA incorporating itself into people’s genomes were based on a full misunderstanding of the science. So an outreach project was developed to allow students to identify a target audience and the messages or education this group would need to make an educated health decision.  


by Evelyn W. ’21

A coloring book for our youngest learners was produced, following Cleo the Covid Cat. Cleo learned about the importance of mask wearing, asymptomatic spreading and even covid variants!

Brochures were made for travel safety, proper hand washing, hotel expectations and for retirement communities highlighted the importance of getting vaccinated to our oldest community members.
by Isabella P. ’21

Podcasts and PSA commercials aimed at parents and  teens used humor and experts to espouse the importance of sticking to the “ rules” to keep those around us safe.

The cycle of creating a thirst for knowledge is at the heart of this course and it is why I love teaching it. Science by nature is a discipline that asks questions and searches for answers. The questions we ask keep changing and so does this course. But I hope that I do not need to facilitate the learning of another pandemic before I retire.

Want to Prompt Discussions on Equity in Science? Start by Drawing

by Jean-Robert Andre, Dean of Equity and Inclusion

Last year, at the People of Color Conference in Seattle, WA, I attended a workshop called “Incorporating Issues of Equity and Inclusion in Middle School Science.” There, two educators helped dispel the myth that science (and math) classes aren’t as amenable to incorporating antiracist and inclusive curricula as, say, a humanities class is. Through a number of activities and conversation prompts, they loaded our tool belts with things to take back to school. At the start of this year, I was contemplating how to weave our efforts towards anti-bias and antiracism more deliberately into my 5th grade curriculum, and I remembered one activity they suggested that has been reproduced in science classrooms across grade levels.  

The prompt is simple – “Draw a scientist doing science.” Let me venture a guess as to what you may have pictured: A scientist in a lab coat, perhaps with frizzy hair giving “mad” scientist vibes, most likely male, most likely white, working indoors at a table surrounded by colorful and bubbling chemicals in beakers. Was I right?

This prompt has been documented with upwards of 20,000 students, and more often than not, the above description is what usually takes shape on the page. As expected, this representation of scientists and their jobs was most prevalent in my classroom too, with a few exceptions. I appreciate this activity because, as a class, we can examine our drawings across any number of different identities and factors. How many students drew an adult? How many drew a woman? How many drew a person of color? Who didn’t draw “potions”? What else are your scientists doing? Why did you draw them this way? The conversations we had after students put their pencils down were fruitful, as we dug into where these “mad scientists doing chemistry” tropes came from, and how our actual experiences with science are quite different! We brainstormed all the different fields students have been exposed to in their academic careers thus far from human physiology to astronomy, entomology, botany, geology and physics. We landed on how systems of discrimination such as sexism, racism, and other ideologies throughout history have limited many people’s access to education, training, research, and jobs in STEM, and how this has led to a certain image of science that we associate with today. In the end, we looked around the room and affirmed that each person there was a scientist, and that science can be for anyone!   

Hearteningly, since this experiment was created several decades ago, there’s been a noticeable increase in a few areas of representation. In the 60’s and 70’s, roughly 1% of students drew women scientists. By the late 2010s that number rose to almost 30%, with 58% of young girls drawing women on the page. It became clear to researchers that stereotypes about the STEM fields were taking root at a very early age – all the more reason for increased representation, not only in the media, but in the classroom itself.  

Each year, Ilta Adler and I introduce the 5th graders to the Ada Lovelace Project as a joint technology and science class assignment. The project draws inspiration from Ada Lovelace Day, founded in Britain in 2009 to honor Ada, the first computer programmer, and women throughout history and the present working in STEM. The walls of South Hall are lined with depictions of Mae Jemison, the first Black astronaut; Hedy Lamarr, inventor of technology that opened the door for modern GPS (and world-famous actor); nuclear physicist, Chien-Shiung Wu; and Wanda Diaz Merced, who translated light energy from stars into sound so that visually impaired scientists like her could make breakthroughs in astronomy, too.  

With each intentional effort, we can further open the door for our students to see themselves in STEM fields, which in turn means more opportunities for future generations of young learners. The first step is recognizing our assumptions and blindspots and actively working to undermine them – in our case, one poster at a time. 

Using the World as a Tool to Learn About Physics & Renewable Energy

By Schuyler Semlear, Science

Fourth grade science students studied physics and renewable energy this spring. Since we were engaged in remote learning, students approached this study in a different way than fourth graders in past years. Below you can watch a few examples of their creative approach to this work.

As part of the Physics study, students created visual representations of waves, in particular the parts of a wave. Students created 3D models, videos, slideshows and posters to teach their classmates about parts of waves including; crest, trough, amplitude and wavelength. 

As part of the fourth grade renewable energy study, each student researched a renewable energy source of their choice. Students had the option to be creative with how they presented their information, from posters and slideshows to working 3D models. The renewable energy project was their final project in fourth grade science.

The Adaptability of Scientific Collaboration in times of Crisis

By Kim Chaloner, Dean of Community Life & Science Teacher

Neuroscientists and Education Researchers Join our Environmental Science Elective to Develop a Scientific Study of COVID-19

Before our distance learning adventure began this month, members of NYU’s Neuroscience team, including members of their Teaching and Learning research group, teamed up with our Environmental Science class to explore and develop the team’s new student-scientist collaboration platform, MINDHIVE. As they describe, “MINDHIVE is a web-based citizen science platform that supports real-world brain and behavior research. It is “designed for students & teachers who seek authentic STEM research experience, and for neuroscientists & cognitive/social psychologists who seek to address their research questions outside of the lab.” MINDHIVE  will eventually develop a large platform to pair students with neuroscientists who will develop research study proposals together. An earlier collaboration with my class and the same team, carried out in 2016 and 2017, was featured in a New York Times piece. We’ve continued the collaboration since then, and for this year, our original idea was to study young people and climate anxiety, developing a research project that looks at how students respond to information about the global crisis of climate disruption.   

The closing of both schools, as well as the unprecedented circumstances of responding to a global pandemic, may have thrown off many learning experiences, but this collaboration was custom built for this particular brand of scientific work. Students at Grace focus on collaboration, real-world learning, and cross-curricular exploration. In these circumstances, our program was ready to keep moving forward.  

Students began their online collaboration this week, studying how scientists balance the need for fast results with the need for solid and reliable data. Like in the climate crisis, the public is weighing the value of acting early and relying on scientific consensus with what seems like more immediate concerns like keeping the economy on track or waiting for completely unanimous conclusions. Our students, with depth and subtly, talked about the most recent studies neuroscientists and social scientists have published and carried out regarding responding to this pandemic, one fantastic example can be found here. They proposed their own study topics of study and discussed them with our team including Suzanne Dikker (pictured in our Zoom chat below). Students asked excellent behavioral research questions like, “If you have family members living overseas, do you worry if their countries aren’t doing enough to prevent the spread of coronavirus and do you see the risk differently?” and “If you are an introvert and normally don’t see people, has the fact that you are now prohibited from seeing anyone strengthened your desire to see people?”  Students talked about how teenagers are reacting to information and how they evaluate what to trust in the media.

As we continue to develop our research project with MINDHIVE, including the input of scientists working on the ground to understand the social nature of the crisis, we are grateful to have this collaboration in place, ready to enter the online learning world.

Scientists and Education Researchers Present on Our Call:

Dr. Suzanne Dikker (Amsterdam)

Veena Vasudevan 

Sushmita Sadhukha 

Rebecca Martin 

Kim Burgas 

Engin Bumbacher 

Ido Davidesco (in spirit!)

Goodbye Rhinos

Guest Post by Kim Chaloner, Dean of Community Life & Science Teacher

While focused on marching with our inspiring student leaders to oppose gun violence yesterday, and contemplating the awful costs of gun culture, I and some of the Grace community noticed an unusual site in Astor Place. Stacked in a solid and imposing 17 foot triplet, three bronze Northern White Rhinos arrived Wednesday, composing the largest rhino statue in the world. Their realistic forms, both delicately detailed and full of heavy meaning, told yet another story about gun violence and the need for our community’s attention to fight for a safe, sustainable and peaceful world.

“The Last Three” is a sculpture created by Gillie and Marc Art, public artists who have gained a reputation for making public sculpture a tool for conservation. As their website details, “Gillie and Marc’s coveted public artworks can be found all over the world including major cities such as Shanghai, New York and Sydney.” On Thursday morning, the couple, along with the Village Alliance, introduced the statue to the public. Having had the opportunity to meet the rhinos themselves, they created this piece to bring their story to the world.   

As the current Environmental Science teacher, I am all too well aware of the the gravity of these beautiful creatures’ personal stories, and this memorial to their waning existence. I was lucky enough to visit threatened Southern White Rhinos at Lake Nakuru Kenya in 2011 thanks to a Grace Faculty Travel Grant. These rhinos were brought back from the brink of extinction after hunting almost wiped them out, but the Northern White Rhinos will most likely be lost.  The Northern White Rhino, despite desperate efforts by the global community of conservation biologists, has only these three members left. Under armed guard at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya are Sudan, the last male, and his daughter and granddaughter, Najin and Fatu. These last three members of the subspecies represent the final victims of the brutal trade in rhino horns for mythical medicinal purposes, as well as hunting, poaching and habitat loss. As beacons of a global loss in species, said to be the sixth extinction as we see species going extinct at what is estimated to be 100 to 1,000 times higher than natural rates scientists have estimated.

I will certainly be bringing my students to Astor Place to, as the artists encouraged the public, feel and experience Sudan, Najin and Fatu. Speaking with INDE creators at the opening ceremonies, I learned that there is an iPhone app that allows kids traveling through Astor Place and walk with the rhinos to learn more about their plight, called INDE. Also, everyone is encouraged to write a goodbye message to the rhinos on the goodbye rhinos website, where notes to the species will be used to petition for better conservation practices.

Kim Chaloner is the Dean of Community Life at Grace and Environmental Science Teacher. One of the many roles she fills at Grace is coordinator of the school’s sustainability programming. Ms. Chaloner is in her nineteenth year at Grace Church School. Prior to working at Grace, Ms. Chaloner worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society.