Infectious Diseases in 7th Grade

Just in time for flu season, Middle School students model scenarios to help them understand the spread of infectious diseases.
Conversations about the spread of disease in the Middle School reached fever pitch this week. It’s not strep. It’s not flu. In fact, it’s not even real: students in 7th grade started their Life Science coding unit, modeling scenarios that will help them understand the spread of infectious diseases and predator-prey relationships. Learning to create these computer models early in the year will equip students to tackle complex topics later. They will visualize changes to complex natural structures––chromosomal deletion in cell biology, for instance––and test interactions in an ecosystem.

In one scenario, students used themselves and the classroom as their stage for understanding how different factors in an environment can influence outcomes. “Programmers” stood around the perimeter of the classroom and provided sets of three verbal commands to their “agent” (another student who moved through the center of the room among other student agents). With so many moving parts, interactions between agents were inevitable. Each time two agents met, a random variable determined the outcome of their interaction: a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Losers were asked to step aside, and winners kept moving.

Students experienced the type of engagement that teachers dream about. Computer science and English teacher Laura Loftus carried her excitement with her even as she left school at the end of the day. “Students were active listeners, they were engaging with scientific concepts, they were moving through the room just as [Head of School] Russell [Shaw] peeked in on his classroom visits. It was so great.”

In another period, Middle School science teacher Ethan Burns facilitated a review of their block coding activities with the Starlogo Nova program. “Did anyone spot the mistake I made here?” Ethan asked as he intentionally made a syntactical error in code. “How did you troubleshoot this problem?” When a student had a question, their peers were often the first to help. “Does it matter if we swap the details of the 'if-then statement' in this loop of code? Will it work the same?” one student asked. “Yes, I know it works because that’s what we did,” answered another.

Laura, Ethan, and science teacher Amanda Gaal partnered to bring this unit to life. They created the space for student teams to explore their own visual models and find solutions to problems in their own work and that of peers.

Looking forward, Amanda described their planned use of the CDC’s interactive infectious disease models in October. The students will explore epidemiology with a focus on the flu. “We’ll be able to watch the spread of infection over time where there are no vaccinations and then again with vaccinations. They’ll be able to recognize the factors that impact the spread of disease.” Ultimately, the coding unit will provide students the tools to engage with life science in far reaching ways and, perhaps, keep their families healthier come flu season.

Staff writer Danny Stock tells the stories of teaching, learning, competing, creating, and performing at Georgetown Day School. He is a former GDS second grade teacher and current parent.


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Georgetown Day School is a coed, preK-12, non-sectarian private school in Washington, DC with small class sizes and a diverse school community. Our comprehensive, innovative curriculum includes hands-on learning, honors and AP classes, as well as advanced-level math and STEM courses. An education is not just college prep and SAT scores. GDS teachers focus on providing the best education for each child, from elementary grades through high school. The school performing arts program includes theater, dance, and music. The athletics program offers competitive sports for student athletes, including cross-country, track, soccer, lacrosse, and crew/rowing. With our strong commitment to financial aid, an independent school tuition is affordable.