"Ooooh," a group of Hampton Middle School students said in unison in Angela Lamer's seventh-grade science class as the clear water inside a plastic bottle turned bright pink.
The class had just seen confirmation that one of their classmates was sick in a simulated outbreak in which students were exposed to various contagions, then challenged to research their infections and find out at the end of the day if they had cured their condition.
Mrs. Lamers had just poured a chemical into a plastic bottle carried by one of her students throughout the day. The positive reaction and bright pink color showed the solution in the bottle was contaminated.
As many of the other bottles turned magenta, the seventh-graders on the Challenger team learned just how easily germs are spread and how quickly two sick students could start an epidemic at the middle school.
Elsewhere, classmates on the Explorer team were finding out the same thing.
On Feb. 13, students were given bottles filled with water. The contents were poured back and forth between two students during the testing phase of the procedure. At the end of each period, the list of infected students were posted based on the simulated tests.
During the last period, Mrs. Lamers conducted the final exposure. The bottle of each student was tested with a solution that changed the color of the liquid to show who was infected.
Twelve of the bottles carried by the 21 students in her period seven science class tested positive. Altogether, 84 of the 126 students on the Challenger team were contaminated.
Mariah Oliver, 13, and Emily Morris, 12, of Hampton, were with the majority of students hoping for the color change. "We wanted to see the pink color," said Mariah. "It's sad though," she added. "The germs spread around a lot."
Vima Arunmozhi, 12, was pleased to spread the germs to his principal, Eric Stennett. "It felt great," he said. But he also learned, "We need to wash our hands more."
For his part, Mr. Stennett, who had joined the class to even up an odd number of students, winked: "Don't worry," he said, "I won't give him a detention. But, seriously, I think it's a great life lesson; it teaches how easily germs can be spread."
Mrs. Lamers has been using this approach for four years in teaching her students how epidemics spread. "Everyone gets to have fun and we get to add some drama," she said.
The experiment was the subject of each class the Challenger teammates shared throughout the day.
In Ken DiDonato's math class, students estimated the number of classmates they expected to be infected. They constructed graphs comparing the actual numbers with their estimations.
Epidemics also were the subject discussed in Cathy Close's English lesson, Jackie Ralutz's reading class and Greg Shumaker's history lesson that day. Help and support was provided by Mary Beth Stoddart, building substitute and Michelle Rushmore, paraprofessional. The moment of truth came upon returning to science class at the end of the day, to find out the number of students infected.
Following the discovery of an epidemic, students followed up by finding out whether the cause was viral or bacterial, how it had spread and how a real-life epidemic can be traced back to find a cause.
They learned about a cholera outbreak in Haiti that was brought to the area by a relief worker from another country, then spread because of the lack of sanitation. Germs, especially if airborne, could easily spread when people travel and turn into a worldwide pandemic, Mrs. Lamers said.
Rita Michel, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published February 21, 2013 10:30 AM