Pandemics and Their Numbers

Everywhere our students are hearing about the HINI influenza. Their interest offers an opportunity to co-teach with a science teacher in an investigation of what we know and don’t know about this pandemic. The New York Times has created an interdisciplinary lesson Pandemic Panic: Researching the 2009 Influenza A (H1N1) Pandemic that asks students to inquire into the current influenza as advisers from multiple perspectives and to share factual information they learn with their classmates and school communities.

The lesson opens with students considering “what we know” and “what we want to know.” The investigation begins as student groups take on such roles as “health advisers” or “economic advisers” or “historical advisers.” “Statistics advisers” could be added, in my opinion. What do the numbers tell us? FluView from the CDC 2008-2009 Influenza Season Week 38 ending September 26, 2009, gives great graphs of several types, some with an over-abundance of information that students will have to sort, select, and make sense of for themselves and their classmates. Statistics and percentages are topics that take on real meaning here.

If the class becomes interested in other diseases that have affected the world, they could research such epidemics as yellow fever. To get them into the story, look into Yellow Fever and the Reed Commission. They could research the number of victims over time and create a timeline from when the disease first reached the present United States up to the discovery of how to control it. A google search on “number of victims from yellow fever” brings up a few good sources, such as an August 10, 1879, article from The New York Times and another from September 24, 1897. Fascinating! But students will need to find other resources as well—encyclopedias and other books, offline as well as online. 

If the information found is sufficient, they could calculate rates of change over the course of different decades. Were there times when the disease rates rose more quickly? When they did not change at all? You could explore with them the concept of the slope of a line, what it actually tells us. Your students will find that numbers tell interesting stories! 


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