The immune system, and especially infectious diseases, have always been interesting topics to students. They already know a lot about infectious diseases, but many have never defined it or put it into context before. I still remember my Health classes in middle school. The impact of seeing pictures of sores and growths due to infectious diseases is still with me. It is important for students to learn about these topics so they can learn to protect themselves with healthy living habits and practicing safe sex. Since the pandemic of Covid-19, learning about these topics has become even more relevant and valuable.
In this blog post I want to share some of my favorite lesson ideas to introduce the Immune System. I’ll share what resources I can, but I want to be careful of honoring the ideas of others, and fair use laws. There are tons of handouts and worksheets that are available for free online. That’s what I usually start with and adapt them to my own needs. Making cute worksheets has never been a strong suit of mine! I hope these ideas can help you plan some awesome lessons and save you some valuable time!
Introduction to Pathogens and Infectious Diseases
If I say “germ,” most people know what I’m talking about. Germ is a basic word. If you catch a germ, it can make you sick. In Biology, we use the word, pathogen. You can get pathogens through sharing drinks, for example. Pathogens are actually alive. So it makes sense that we would study them in Biology, as well as for their interconnectedness with the human body and other living things. (Side note for teachers, there is a debate in science between whether viruses are alive or not. Essentially, they come alive in the body, but without a host they are just genetic material inside a protein structure with other macromolecules like lipids and carbohydrates.)
Pathogens are microscopic. You need a microscope to see them. Do you think it would be hard to protect yourself against something you can’t see? For example, the drinking water here in the US is safe to drink. But there are other countries in the world where drinking the water can cause disease and make you sick. You may not be able to tell just by looking at it. Certain diseases are harder to catch. Blood born pathogens, such as HIV, need a lot of blood. Like through a blood transfusion.
Do you think there are other diseases that you can’t catch? What about things you’re born with? Down’s Syndrome is caused by DNA. It’s a genetic condition that doesn’t spread from one person to another. We learn about genetic diseases next semester when we study genes. Cancer is a disease that is caused by a cell in your body that mutates or changes. Diabetes is genetic and also correlated with diet and lifestyle. It means that part of your body isn’t working correctly. Diabetes, Heart Disease, and Cancer are non-infectious and our immune system doesn’t help with these.
Lecture and Notes
After my short introduction above, I give a lecture while students take notes. I like to do the notes first, and then students can go back and do the vocabulary after. When we take notes, you get points. It’s just copying from the lecture. If you miss notes, you can copy from someone in class, or access the slides in Google Classroom.
I generally try to keep my lectures short, around 20 minutes. However, throughout my introduction and lecture, students ask really interesting questions. Because of this, I have allowed for more class time for this lecture over the years.
I’ve done these notes a few different ways. My favorite is probably the Notes Outline. Another idea is Cornell Notes. Even another idea is to underline specific information on each slide, and that’s what students write down in their notebooks.
Check out my Immune System folder in Google Drive for ideas. In the folder you will find my lecture slides presentation, Notes Outline, and Cornell Notes. Just make copies and tweak them to your needs!
Check-ins are my special twist on a quiz or exit ticket, and they are one of my essential classroom routines. My Pathogens and Infectious Diseases Check-in is great to use after the lecture. It’s short and sweet, and tells me what misunderstandings, if any, I need to clear up before we build on to what we just learned. Students get feedback for correct and incorrect answers. Just don’t forget to make a copy, so that you will receive the student responses and results, not me! If you want to read more about how I use Check-ins in my classroom, check out my blog post How I Use “Check-ins” to Check for Understanding and Inform My Teaching. To read more about some my essential classroom routines, check out my blog post My Go-To Lesson Structure and 8 Classroom Routines for Better Classroom Management.
Warm-ups are another one of my essential classroom routines. They are great at the beginning of class to review the material from the previous lesson. I can clear up misunderstandings, and then jump right into the new material to cover that day. The questions in these warm-ups are super straight forward. Students can use their notes and classwork to answer the questions in complete sentences. We go over the answers as a class, so these are like free points. I give points for all of the warm-ups at the end of the unit when we do a notebook check.
Pathogen Research and Notes
This is a super easy, individual assignment to facilitate. Students research and takes notes on various diseases and the different pathogens that cause them: Viruses, Bacteria, Fungi, and Parasites. They record information, using bullet points, on a piece of notebook paper. It takes students anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes to complete this assignment. I like to do this assignment because students have choice, and they can research diseases that they each find interesting. They also become more acquainted with the different types of pathogens. The Healthline article https://www.healthline.com/health/what-is-a-pathogen is a great resource.
Spread of a Disease Lab
I love this lab because it is a lot of fun. It is a hands-on and memorable experience for students. It is also quick and easy to set-up, which cannot be said about most labs in my opinion. All you need is a class set of test tubes, pipettes, safety goggles, water, baking soda, and Phenolphthalein solution (as the indicator).
The lab is a whole class activity. The purpose is to model the spread of an epidemic in a population. Everyone in the class will get a test tube and a pipette with clear liquid in it. It doesn’t have a real pathogen in it, so it won’t get you sick. The pretend pathogen in this lab will spread through bodily fluids: saliva, semen, vaginal secretions. Only 1 person has the pathogen to start with, and we see how far it spreads. In the lab, students “exchange fluids” with 4 people. Once we’ve all exchanged fluids, I come around and add the indicator. If it turns PINK, then the person is testing positive. If it appears cloudy/clear, it is negative.
I also like this lab because we do some detective work to determine who the original infected person was. This is a real job. There are WHO scientists who interview people. Have they left the country? Where are they coming from? Who have they had contact with? We watch the movie Contagion and see this as well. They are called contact tracers.
Just Google “lab spread of a disease” or “epidemic outbreak lab” and you should be able to find worksheets online for free. I won’t post mine because I have no idea where it originated from. It was used at my school for the last 10-15 years. I’ll write a whole blog post on this lab, so stay tuned for that! For now, check out my Spread of a Disease Lab Teacher Script which explains the procedure, and how to do the “contact tracing” detective work at the end. I hope it helps! If you want to read about how I teach Lab Safety in my classroom before doing labs like this, check out my blog post, How She Teaches Lab Safety.
Students add the new terms to their Vocabulary Logs: Immune System, Pathogens, Bacteria, Virus, Infectious Disease. At this point in the year, my students already know how to do a Vocabulary Log. They use either their Chromebook or the textbook for the definitions. If using the textbook, just use the glossary in the back of the book. Either way, it is important that they write the definitions in their own words. Then students use Google Image Search to draw an image for each term.
This assignment works great after the lecture or the lab to reinforce the material. Whatever students don’t finish during class time becomes homework and it must be completed by the next notebook check. If you want to read more about how I use Vocabulary Logs in the classroom, check out my blog post Vocabulary Logs. To read about how I introduce the Vocabulary Logs in a lesson, check out my blog post, What is a System?
- Immune System
- Infectious Disease
Additional terms: Non-infectious disease, Symptom, Zoonotic, Vector, Epidemic, Pandemic, Covid-19, Contact Tracer, Quarantine
PBS Documentary – Spillover: Zika, Ebola and Beyond
This is a great documentary by PBS. In recent years, I remember reading and watching the news during the Ebola and Zika outbreaks. My students remember too. They watch this documentary and learn more about these infectious diseases that basically all of them are familiar with, but don’t know much about. I like this documentary because it helps students understand zoonotic diseases, or diseases that jump from animal species to humans. That’s super relevant today after the Covid-19 outbreak.
I also like this documentary because it explains the strategy of quarantine to prevent the spread of disease. Exposed individuals isolate. Sometimes people have to stay home. Borders close, and sometimes you can’t fly out of the country. Sound familiar? The documentary also shows contact tracers doing their work. We watch clips from the movie and students take notes by listing 10 Facts. To read about how I do 10 Facts Notes, and for more notetaking ideas, check out my blog post, 5 Ways to Take Notes Without a Worksheet.
The PBS documentary Spillover: Zika, Ebola and Beyond is streaming on their website for free at https://pbsnc.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/spillover-zika-ebola-beyond/spillover-full-program/
The Movie: Contagion
Contagion (2011) is a drama/thriller movie about the spread of an epidemic. Even before I showed this movie in class, it was one of my favorites. It’s one of those movies that most of my students haven’t seen before. It’s interesting to them, and they stay awake for it! They also generally have an easy time following the plot. This Contagion Movie Sheet by Finding Science is my favorite movie viewing guide to use. It is available for purchase on Teachers Pay Teachers.
I showed Contagion in class before the Covid-19 pandemic. I don’t know if I would show it now. It is just a little too realistic. In February and March of 2020, there was growing concern of the coronavirus. It was in the news, and my students started asking questions about it. Many of them referred to the movie Contagion that we had watched earlier in the school year. Right before schools were closed to switch to remote learning and try to protect everyone from the virus, my students drew eerie parallels to the movie. I think the whole experience was traumatic for many students, teachers, and parents. So just use discretion if you choose to show this film. If you can plan ahead, add it to the Syllabus, Course Outline, or Welcome Letter that you send home at the beginning of the year so that parents are informed.
Infectious Disease Project
This is a project we do at the end of our Immune System unit. Students use all of their knowledge of pathogens, infectious diseases, immune cells, the immune response, medicine, and safety to create a presentation to present to the class. I love teaching with projects. It is really meaningful to apply what we’re learning in a long term way. I wrote more about using projects like student choice projects in my blog post How She Teaches Student Choice Projects. What are Student Choice Projects? And Why I Started Using Them.
In this project, students work in pairs to research an infectious disease. They research the information online, and answer questions. Students split up these questions with their partner and write answers on notebook paper first as notes. Their complete set of notes will be the answers to all of the questions! So they must work together. They use complete sentences to answer each question and use these to make a google slideshow of their information. They must have 2 slides per question and include pictures on the slides too. The last slide should be a list of links to all of the sources they used in their research and for their pictures.
I really like this project because students are excited to learn about infectious diseases. They find it super interesting. They also pay attention to the presentations, which makes makes for 2 fun block periods and the notetaking goes faster.
Partner pairs choose from this list of Infectious Diseases. Sometimes they come up with their own ideas for diseases that are not on this list.
- Chicken Pox
- Small Pox
- Lyme Disease
- West Nile Virus
Other Ideas to Teach and Reinforce These Topics:
1. Dividing Page
Students create a Dividing Page in their science notebooks. They use all of the vocabulary terms: Immune System, Pathogens, Bacteria, Virus, Infectious Disease. They write the words, and draw at least 5 images. Students must use 4 or more colors, and the page must be fully colored (no white paper showing). They don’t need to write the definitions, just the words. Can also include the terms: Non-infectious disease, Symptom, Zoonotic, Vector, Epidemic, Pandemic, Covid-19, Contact Tracer, Quarantine
2. Venn Diagram: Virus and Bacteria
Compare and Contrast viruses and bacteria using a Venn diagram. This can be a whole class activity and a lesson, or as an individual assignment. Comparing and contrasting with a Venn diagram is excellent practice for developing and using models. This is a science and engineering practice in NGSS. You can even do a triple Venn diagram by adding another pathogen!
3. Vocabulary Logs (Again!?)
I love Vocabulary Logs because they are a built in classroom routine. If I ever find myself with an extra 20 minutes, this is easily something students can work on and add to. It seriously helps with classroom management, because “free time” just won’t work. Vocabulary Logs don’t feel like busy work, and it is a great resource to have in their science notebooks. By allowing students to choose a few words themselves, they can go deeper into that are interesting to them. Some vocabulary term ideas are: Non-infectious disease, Symptom, Zoonotic, Vector, Epidemic, Pandemic, Covid-19, Contact Tracer, Quarantine
4. Bill Nye Germs
I love Bill Nye! Along with Steve Irwin, he is one of my idols! One little reason I love teaching middle school science is because I love to show Bill Nye videos. They are perfect after a lab on long block period days. It is something fun we can watch that is closely related to the topic. One teacher told me, It’s the carrot. If students waste time or are not on task, we don’t have time to watch the video. One teacher told me, It’s the carrot. They have to finish the ab/assignment/classwork in order to do the fun thing afterwards. My favorite video guide is this Bill Nye Germs worksheet by Star Materials. It is on Teachers Pay Teachers. I love all of the Star Materials video guide worksheets! I use several of them throughout the year. The Bill Nye videos are usually available on SchoolTube.com or available for purchase on YouTube.
5. Amoeba Sisters
Amoeba Sisters are great for High School Biology. The videos are under 10 minutes. They have worksheets that go along with the videos as well. Some are for free, and others are available for purchase. If we have a little extra time before the bell, I can throw on one of their videos. They have so many Biology topics. They go a little fast, so that’s just something to keep in mind! Some related videos are: Bacteria, Viruses, and Immune System. Flocabulary and BrainPOP are other great resources for short videos. They are great for middle school, and I loved their worksheets when I was using them.
Have Fun Teaching the Immune System!
I hope you enjoyed this blog post on my favorite ideas to teach pathogens and infectious diseases. One of the hardest things to me about being a new teacher was constantly lesson planning day in and day out. I hope these ideas can inspire you to create some amazing lessons that are interesting and challenging for students. I hope I can save you some time, help you feel more prepared, and sleep better at night!
What are your favorite lessons to teach about the immune system? Let me know by leaving a comment. I would love to hear from you! If you are interested in reading more about what we learned in class before this, Check out my blog posts How She Teaches Being Alive: 6 Characteristics of Living Things, How She Teaches What is a System?, and How She Teaches Body Systems. If you are interested in reading more about me and my classroom, check out my blog posts below!
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