George Lucas Educational Foundation
Curriculum Planning

Using the Pandemic as a Teaching Tool

Teachers are exploring the far-reaching effects of the coronavirus with students in classes ranging from history to business and math.

July 21, 2020
Lev Dolgachov / Alamy

On April 20, 2020, the price of crude oil crashed into unforeseen and seemingly impossible territory: negative numbers, reaching –$37.60 a barrel. Mathematically, such a data point is interesting enough. How could a price be negative? Historically, it was unprecedented. My statistics students were lucky enough to capture this moment in real time.

The Covid-19 pandemic is unlike anything that modern humans have ever experienced. The world will not be the same when we emerge from this, and yet we have no way of knowing what it will look like. What is certain is that this moment is historic, and it would be a mistake to let it pass without pausing to think and reflect about it.

Teachers at my school took advantage of this learning opportunity and helped our students play an active role in history. Students engaged with the current moment from many perspectives. You don’t need to be a historian to document history.

Incorporating the Pandemic Into Our Curriculum

In my statistics class, students chose several statistics to track every day throughout the lockdown on a spreadsheet. They analyzed the data and put it together into a mini news report. We all shared our data with each other as we gathered and analyzed it.

The whole class was in awe on the day that Aaron stated that for the first time in history, oil prices dropped below zero. Paisley lamented that as time in quarantine passed, her time use shifted in a statistically significant way from creative endeavors to social networking. Nathan was shocked to find that by the time we started collecting data, the number of confirmed cases followed a linear trend rather than the exponential trend that one might expect for disease spread, noting that this indicated that our efforts to flatten the curve seemed to be working. The students not only participated in documenting history but also learned the value of mathematics in shaping our perceptions of trends and events.

Engineering students in Zeb Engberg’s class participated in a design challenge. They identified a specific problem arising as a result of the novel coronavirus and designed a solution to that problem. Students prototyped their design and created a video to market it. Choezin taught a method for making your own protective gloves using wax paper and a hair straightener. Richie created comfortable headwear to keep people from touching their faces. Hank designed an app to get users up out of their seats and away from their computers at regular intervals throughout the day by flashing a reminder of something that the user loves and values away from technology. The students embraced the opportunity and acted as engineers in a time of need.

The climbing class dove into the ethics of outdoor recreation during a pandemic. Teacher Brandon Smith helped students research different points of view and used an online discussion forum to debate whether or not it was OK to climb. They brought up scientific research about social distancing, the effect of UV light, the length of time that the virus lives on surfaces, and the mathematics behind flattening the curve. They also raised ethical arguments about traveling to the rural communities that climbing areas are typically located in and the tax on the limited resources of those communities if you were to get injured while climbing. These are the kinds of debates that legislators and climbers are having throughout the country.

The business math class had already begun a project in which students dreamed up a concept for a product or service and then created a business and marketing plan for it. After school closed, they shifted focus. They researched ways that other businesses were modifying their operations in order to react to social distancing mandates. Students then created contingency and crisis management plans centered around what they would do with their business in a time like this.

Teacher Nate Moffet said, “Many realized the harsh reality that their business may not survive an economic shutdown. Others were able to create good plans to keep their employees and customers as safe as possible while also protecting their business.”

The U.S. history class created documentaries that compared the coronavirus with other national health crises in the past. Students researched similarities and differences between Covid-19 and a crisis of their choosing with respect to rapidity of disease spread, health outcomes, personal responses, government responses, and lessons learned. They also documented the measures being taken in our community and reflected on their feelings about those policies.

An Important Caveat

It’s important to note that thinking and talking about the pandemic is traumatic and triggering for many students. The teachers who crafted these assignments were sensitive to those students and offered the chance to opt out of our projects. There are many resources on trauma-informed teaching that we reviewed as we designed our assignments—Teaching Tolerance has a good approach.

We were careful not to step beyond our training by trying to counsel students through their trauma, and we directed them to professionals, if necessary. Without the expertise to handle complex student emotions, we avoided initiating conversations that might elicit fear, anxiety, and worry. Instead, we encouraged students to learn about the pandemic by looking at data and following credible news sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most students chose to participate, and those who did valued the experiences greatly. The student who tracked the negative oil price excitedly reported that his project could be used as a primary source for kids studying this period in history in decades to come. It’s thrilling to be part of that enthusiasm. We’ve also instilled in our students the idea that pausing and documenting the world around them, whether it be through math, design, ethics, or business, is an important way to be fully present in your moment in history. You never know when you’ll accidentally track the next unprecedented moment.

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