Now more than ever, there’s been a lot of talk about disease and vaccination. There have probably been a lot of conversations with children who want to understand more about what a ‘pandemic’ is, and what the Covid-19 is and what it means. But as we try to tackle the spread of the virus with global vaccinations, helping students understand how vaccines work and why they’re important is essential. Not only for their overall understanding, but to help mitigate the spread of misinformation around vaccination.
This blog will break down ways for you to tackle the conversations around vaccination with your class- but please note that it’s best suited to a follow-up lesson around germ theory.
Start with myth-busting
We’re in an era that has been called the ‘post truth’ age by some academics which, as scientists, is concerning. Understanding the difference between fact and opinion is crucial for all of us – especially children – and yet there are many high profile examples of influential adults spreading misinformation. This can make it much harder to get children to understand the importance of identifying trustworthy, reliable sources of information. However, one thing that should be universally acknowledged, is that we have to trust the experts.
‘Experts’ should be defined as people with extensive, relevant knowledge who are qualified to speak on a topic. That could be a scientist, someone with a PhD, or someone who has significant lived experience in a particular area. However, an important distinction to make is that just because someone is an authority figure does not automatically mean they are experts, qualified to make a judgement on something, because authority and power does not equate to expertise. A good example of this is former US President Donald Trump talking about using bleach as a way of treating Covid-19. Although he is an ‘authority figure’, he is not ‘an authority’ on treatment of Covid-19, because he is not an expert on Covid-19 or its treatment.
You can bring this conversation into the classroom…
1. Start by asking the class what they think they know about Covid-19. Ask them how they know these things. Does the information come from reliable sources? How can they fact check these? Write everything they say on the board, we’ll come back to this later.
2. Next, ask them what they know about the vaccine. Do they think it’s safe? If not, why not? Where have they heard that it might not be safe? Again, add these ideas to the board.
This is an incredibly important – but delicate- subject. The prevalence of mis and disinformation around vaccination, particularly online, means that it’s quite possible that their parents do not believe in vaccination, or have fallen victim to disinformation which they have passed onto their children. Nevertheless, it’s important to be clear on what the science tells us: and that is that vaccines are safe, and necessary to protecting ourselves and others.
3. Explain how vaccines work
Start by showing them this good explainer video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-muIoWofsCE&feature=youtu.be
- Vaccines don’t make you better- they help to prevent you from getting sick in the first place.
- Vaccines are effectively giving your body a ‘practice run’ at what it would be like if it came into contact with the germs that could make you sick. They do this by injecting you with a weakened version of the real germs – which can’t make you sick, but allows your body to create antibodies, ready to tackle the real germs should you come into contact with it in future. This video does a good job of explaining quickly how antibodies work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7fDNWwWyBE
- Vaccines work a bit like giving your immune system a heads up that there is something nasty going around, which they need to watch out for in the future. Your body does this by creating antibodies specifically for the virus you’re being vaccinated against – because it can’t tell the difference between the harmless germ cells in the vaccine, and the harmful germ cells which are the real thing. They both trigger the same auto-immune response.
4. Next, open up the opportunity for your students to ask questions. Here are some common questions, and some answers to help you to prepare:
- So why do you sometimes need a second jab for the same disease? Well, this is because after a while, your body might stop thinking the virus is a big threat, and stop producing as many antibodies as before. This means there’s a chance your body won’t be as well prepared for the real germs, should you come into contact with them. The second jab lets your body know that there is a persistent threat of getting sick – and that it should stay prepared for coming into contact with those germs.
- Does that mean it’s impossible to get sick once you have a vaccine? No, it doesn’t. It is still possible to get sick with a disease, even if you’ve been vaccinated against it. It just makes it a lot less likely to happen.
- I don’t think it would be that bad if I got sick, so why should I bother getting vaccinated? No one can be sure how their body will react to a disease, everyone is different. However, the risks of getting sick are much, much less than any risk posed by getting a vaccine. However, even if you’re not worried about your own health, you should also consider public health. In the case of Covid-19, you can have the virus and be asymptomatic (i.e. not know you’ve got it), which means you could be passing it on to other people without realising it. The more people are vaccinated, the less likely you are to become infected, and the less likely you are to pass the virus on to others.
- What’s an ‘R’ number? The R number is a mathematical term to describe the ‘reproduction’ number of something. In the case of disease, it’s used to describe the number of secondary infections for every person who gets infected. For instance, if the R number is 2, it means for every person who gets infected, on average another 2 people will be infected as a result. The lower the R number, the lower the spread of the virus.
- Are vaccines completely risk-free? Nothing is ever 100% risk-free. However, vaccines have to go through extremely rigorous testing and trials before they are rolled out to the public. Every kind of vaccine, medication or medical procedure carries some risk. But the experts are confident that the benefits significantly outweigh the risks.
- I’ve heard the Covid vaccine was rushed, so it can’t be trusted. Is that true? No. All vaccines have to undergo the same process before they are rolled out to the public. However, the reason the Covid vaccine was able to be produced so quickly, was because there were none of the delays which usually form a standard part of vaccine creation. There was ample funding, global support, and international sharing of new developments in the interest of global health. Also, researchers weren’t ‘starting from scratch’ with vaccine research for Covid-19. Covid-19 is part of the Coronavirus family, which was not new to the medical world (i.e. SARS). This means there was already work underway on creating vaccines for illnesses within this family of viruses.
5. Now return to the myths around Covid-19 vaccines that may have appeared in your earlier conversations with your class. Go through these individually, and help them refine their critical thinking skills by deconstructing them as a class, one by one.
Simply telling them something isn’t true is less likely to be believed, especially if it contradicts what they may have heard elsewhere. If you come across any challenges to the information you’re giving them, invite them to look up sources of information to support their argument. When they present their source, use this as an opportunity to identify when a source is unreliable. In a time where mid/disinformation is so prevalent and believable, this is arguably one of the most important skills we can be imparting on our children. You can teach your students to follow this simple three-step process:
A) Who is the author?
Are they an expert? Do they have a proven track record of sharing accurate information, or are they regularly challenged by other reliable sources and experts? Use this to make an informed judgement as to how reliable they are.
B) What is the source?
Most sources of mis/disinformation are on websites that look like news sites, but are not. Invite students to look up who runs the site, and how it’s funded. Is it funded by people who may have an agenda, or motivation to persuade people to a certain way of thinking? Do they have a proven track record of journalistic integrity? There’s a directory of sources which have been proven to share misinformation; checking the name of the website against this list could be a good place to start: https://www.factcheck.org/2017/07/websites-post-fake-satirical-stories/
C) Is this information or news supported by other reliable sources?
If your source’s information is going against that of other credible sources, then it’s important to employ critical thinking and try and consider which source is likely to be correct. Could there be an ulterior motive underpinning why the contradicting source is sharing that information? For instance, most online news sources rely on clicks and views to their website to generate revenue from advertising. Being controversial can generate income.
This is an unprecedented time for us all, and we are having to have unprecedented conversations with our children as a result. However, by being transparent with our children, and equipping them with the skills they need to make informed decisions about who to trust when it comes to their health, we can help raise the next generation of well informed global citizens.
In this information age, there’s a strange phenomenon sweeping the world: fake news. It seems to be the ‘get out of jail free’ card for anyone who hears information which they don’t like or agree with, and that’s a big problem for children growing up, and trying to navigate the world around them.
How can you know what is real, and what is fake? Critical thinking is an incredibly important skill, and one we should encourage our children to develop. Understanding what makes objective fact (i.e. you can’t argue with it because you don’t like it!) is a big part of that.
Here are three ways you can help develop those all-important critical thinking skills in your children, both in science lessons and beyond…
1. Cause and Effect: Developing Hypotheses
This is all about understanding the ‘why’. This is something that seems intuitive for adults, but it’s actually something we have to learn. There is an infinite number of experiments you can do to illustrate cause and effect- but the most important thing you can do is open the conversation up to children and ask them why they think something happens. This can then lead into a conversation around what a scientific hypothesis is, and how it frames all scientific experiments.
For example, if you want to teach children about photosynthesis, start by asking children open-ended questions about how plants grow, and what they think they need to survive. A lot of children understand that they need water and light- but won’t know why this is the case.
Then suggest experimenting with growing plants, to test their theories. Perhaps you could decide to grow some classroom potatoes (which can be grown in a heavy-duty carrier bag or a large tub, and help engage kids in an understanding of agriculture) or even start with something a little easier like cress. Get the children to identify what they think would be the best growing conditions and then set up an experiment to test their hypothesis by placing the cress seeds in different conditions.
At the end of the experiment, you can revisit their hypothesis and see if they think they were right. The important thing is to help them see that there’s nothing wrong with being wrong- in science, you learn just as much from what doesn’t work! It’s a case of understanding why something didn’t work, i.e. the plant kept in a cupboard died because it didn’t get enough sunlight. Cause = lack of sunlight, effect = dead plant!
2. Talk About Biases
Bias is defined as a cause to feel or show inclination or prejudice for or against someone or something. Explain to your pupils that, sometimes, this can be very apparent – but in science, we’re looking for facts, so it’s important to minimise bias when conducting research in order to ensure that the results are accurate.
It’s also important to discuss the role of bias in reporting. You could demonstrate this by giving the students two reports of the same experiment- one written with bias, the other, without (these ‘reports’ can be as short or as long as you like). Invite the students to read and assess both of them and try to identify certain language used which indicate bias, or where the information/data presented has been manipulated to support the authors’ view. Then open the conversation up to discuss why this can be damaging, and what the implications could be.
You could get the students to practice conducting research without bias by dividing the class into groups, and getting them to write some survey questions on a particular topic- like finding out how many students would like all homework to be abolished, for instance! The students writing the survey questions are likely to have a certain bias, so challenge them to write questions which allow them to accurately report on the feelings of the class without leading the students into a certain result.
They should realise just how hard it is to ask questions that don’t ‘lead’ the responder into a certain viewpoint. Be sure to discuss the survey and the results, and encourage them to write an unbiased report on their findings to extend the lesson further.
3. Encourage Asking Questions: Establishing Fact from Fiction
Science is, first and foremost, about asking questions. All scientists set out to answer unanswered questions, so fostering a culture of inquisitiveness is important in classrooms. This is linked to developing a hypothesis, which we talked about earlier- but more than that, as educators we need to be encouraging children to challenge the world around them, and not to simply accept what is presented to them as fact.
There is, of course, a balancing act to play here. As we mentioned in this blog intro, there’s a rise in people – even authority figures – choosing to dismiss scientific fact because it doesn’t suit their own narratives. This is where lessons about critical thinking come into their own; when you have opposing sides arguing that they’re “right”, each claiming to be presenting the truth. Being able to filter through the rhetoric to establish what is fact and what is fiction is incredibly important.
This is where teaching children about reliable sources is incredibly important. Sometimes information can be presented in a way which looks legitimate, but upon closer inspection is not at all. Invite your students to visit https://www.allaboutexplorers.com/explorers/columbus/ and read the article there. Then ask them if they think this is factually accurate (spoiler alert, it’s not!). Discuss the problems with the piece, but be sure to discuss why someone might believe it- and what potential problems can arise from the spreading of fake news.
For older students, a good exercise would be to show a screen shot of one of Donald Trump’s tweets claiming that global warming is a hoax. Discuss the implications of that statement, and unpick whether or not it is true. You could extend this further by asking students to find reliable sources proving the climate change is real, and discussing how to persuade people to believe in the truth using accurate and compelling data. This makes for a great cross-curricular exercise!
In what has been called the ‘Information Age’, it’s never been easier to learn about the world around us. But unfortunately, it’s never been easier for people to be misled with fake news, and misinformation. By equipping children to think critically about the information they consume, and by helping them to identify reliable and unreliable sources, we can not only help to make them better scientists- but better global citizens, too.
The person writing this blog is a massive Christmas nerd. She’s the kind of person who would have the Christmas tree up in October, if there was any chance it would survive until Christmas! But this year there’s been a real lack of pre-Christmas cheer. Thanks to Covid, there’s no wandering through early Christmas markets, no big ‘Christmas Light Switch-Ons’, no promise of large carol services throughout December. And as for our children… do they know it’s Christmas time at all?
So here at Empiribox, we’re here to bring some festive flare to some science lessons! Whether done at home or in the classroom, these easy DIY experiments bring a little bit of magic into your science lessons.
1. Crystallised Snowflakes
This experiment allows you to explain a whole host of scientific principles, ranging from how crystals are formed, to evaporation, to saturation. Plus the results look awesome, and can be hung on the Christmas tree or in the window afterwards. What’s not to love?!
Tray or dish
Ribbon (to turn them into ornaments!)
1. Make your paper snowflake in the classic method. You know the one- cut your piece of paper into a circle, fold repeatedly until it looks like a slice of pizza and then cut shapes out of the edges and unfold to reveal your unique paper snowflake
2. Create your salt-water solution by filling a measuring jug with very hot or boiling water. Gradually add a tablespoon of table salt, stirring it thoroughly each time until full dissolved. Repeat this process until the water is saturated.
3. Place the opened snowflake flat on a tray or dish and pour the water solution over it until it’s just submerged.
Set aside the tray or dish and wait for the water to evaporate, leaving behind your crystallised snowflake!
How does it work?!
Ah, the magic of chemistry! As your salt solution cools and the water evaporates, the sodium and chlorine atoms start to bond together because they’re no longer separated by the water molecules, leaving behind unusual cube-shaped salt crystals.
– Hot liquids are able to suspend solubles in them more easily
– Saturation points in liquids
– Symmetry (good way to integrate maths into your science lessons!)
– Crystal formation
2. Festive Skittles Magic!
A science experiment that’s festive, seems magical AND involves sweets?! What’s not to love! This experiment is super easy and fun to watch as it goes. Depending on the age of the kids you’re teaching, you can keep it simple by using the experiment to discuss water density, or if you want to make it more advanced, you can use it to talk about water stratification (but we’ll get to that later!)
Red and Green Skittles (you know what to do with the rest!)
Christmas Cookie Cutters
1. Ask the children to arrange the skittles around the edge of the plate in any pattern they like
2. For an additional Christmas touch, place a Christmas shaped cookie cutter in the centre of the plate
3. Before pouring the water onto the plate, ask the children to hypothesise what will happen to the Skittles when they get wet
4. Carefully pour water into the centre of the cookie-cutter. The water will spill out from underneath the cookie-cutter. Keep pouring until it just starts to cover the Skittles. Take care not to shake or move the plate once you’ve added the water, or it will disturb the effect.
How does it work?!
As the sugary coating on the outside of the skittles starts to dissolve, the water will take on the colouring and gradually start to be drawn to the centre of the plate towards the cookie-cutter. In what’s called “water stratification”, the density of the water and food colouring across all the Skittles is the same, which means the colours don’t mix (initially, at least)- resulting in perfect stripes towards the centre!
– Water density
– Water stratification
– Dissolving substances in water
– Water saturation
– Developing a hypothesis
3. Christmas ‘snowball’ catapult
This is a great cross-curricular/STEM activity, as it straddles physics, maths and engineering all in one- with a little bit of a creative, festive twist!
10 large lollipop sticks
3 elastic bands
Mini pom-poms (these are your snowballs!)
Plastic milk lid
Paints/pens/glitter or other supplies to decorate
1. Stack eight lollipop sticks together and tightly bind them together with rubber bands
2. Take two separate lollipop sticks. Paint/colour one in red, and one in green.
3. Make two notches on either side of the red and green lollipop sticks towards the end of each (might be best to get an adult to do this part, especially for more junior scientists!) These will be used to ensure the elastic bands don’t move too much when in action later.
4. Push the green lollipop stick through the stacked bunch of lollipop sticks so that it rests on the bottom stick in the pack, with the end with the notches sticking out away from the rest of the pack.
5. Place the red lollipop stick on top, parallel with the green lollipop stick. Where the notches line up, tie the two lollypop sticks together securely with a couple of elastic bands.
6. Glue the milk lid to the top of the end of the red lollipop stick. Once this is dry, your catapult is ready!
7. Place the catapult on a firm flat surface. Place a pom-pom in the milk lid, press down towards the table, and release!
8. Feel free to decorate the catapults as festively as possible
How does it work?!
Thanks to gravity, we can push down with a much greater amount of force than we can lift up. You can use this simple catapult to explain how catapults are used to throw very heavy objects incredibly far, with a minimal amount of human strength required. A good way of expanding this experiment is to substitute the ‘snowballs’ for other objects, like paper balls, for instance. Encourage the children to measure the distance the objects can get each time with the catapult, and assess why some can travel further than others.
– The fulcrum point (i.e. the point that doesn’t move)
– How levers work
– Potential and stored energy
– Design principles
We celebrate women in science as much as possible, in fact, one of our main aims is to get girls in primary schools to be engaged with science from a young age.
We’ve been talking to some amazing women who work in science, like Kayla Leyden a Senior Aquarist from the USA. We’ve also made some awesome videos to show you how women work in science every day. Take 5 minutes to watch them and be inspired by the women they include.
Anna Maria Trofaier, a Cryosphere Scientist, explains how she monitors Global Warming, the impact rising temperatures have on the planet and how we can help slow down Climate Change.
Ella Gilbert, Meteorologist at the British Antarctic Survey, talks to us about what her job involves, how to prevent Global Warming and travelling to Antarctica.
Jane Younger, Physiotherapist talks to Empiribox about what she does day to day, why she loves her job and what made her choose to pursue a career using science.