Ebola hysteria in the United States has the research community holding their heads in disbelief. When it comes to science stupidity, America can claim to be Number One! From average citizen up to mayors and state governors, the United States is in the lead for biological ignorance. Will science teachers and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) turn that around?
Before 2000, Kansas biology teachers had some professional leeway to teach various biology topics. With three times more to teach than class time allowed, some taught physiology and viruses and immunity.
The first serious revision of Kansas K-12 science standards in 1999 did include human anatomy and physiology and microbiology. Those teachers did have a standard they could point to in defending what they were teaching.
However, the 2005 revision removed those concepts in order to align with barren national standards. And most recently the Kansas State Board of Education adopted the Next Generation Science Standards that spends most of its verbiage promoting critical thinking methodology. The only explicit concepts are ecology, evolution and molecular biology. These subdisciplines provide no specific basis for teaching the concepts needed to understan epidemic diseases.
What concepts should an average citizen—who is by definition a lifetime patient—need to know to understand threats such as Ebola? How can teachers replace unreasonable fear with intelligent respect?
Ebola is just one of hundreds of bacteria and viruses that cause human illness. -Not in the NGSS.
Antibiotics work against bacteria but not viruses. -Not covered in the NGSS.
No virus in known history has mutated from traveling in body fluids to spreading airborne. -There is no contrast of the stable smallpox virus with the changeable AIDS virus in the NGSS.
There are four levels of biohazard personal protective equipment (PPE), from simple precautions with bare hands up to fully sealed suits with a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). -Nothing to support teaching this from the NGSS.
The mode of transmission is very important. We need SCBA to enter a research lab that grows infectious viruses such as HIV (that causes AIDS); but we need no protection when talking with or touching an AIDS patient in a hospital ward or in open society. Ebola patients require more isolation and health workers need more protection, but not as much as in a research lab. -The NGSS gives no support.
The nature of experimental drug research, the need for quarantine measures, and the duration of infection all depend on understanding the general mechanisms of the human immune system. And why are survivors then immune? -There is nothing in the NGSS a teacher can use to explicitly defend the teaching of any human anatomy and physiology.
How should we disinfect clothing and dispose of wastes from Ebola patients? -There is nothing in the NGSS that supports learning the basic concepts of aseptic technique and antisepsis that were discovered by Koch, Pasteur and Lister over a century ago.
Do empty standards really matter? We may not all become doctors but we will all become patients. Failure to understand our “owner’s manual” has far more consequences than causing the current needless hysteria over Ebola. The most deadly contagion in human history was the flu of 1918. Today referred to as “bird flu,” it spread from Fort Riley. On a day-to-day basis, it was far more lethal than the bubonic plague of the Middle Ages. And it is only a matter of time when (not if) it will mutate to regain 1918 lethality. Our hospitals and morgues will not be able to hold the dead bodies. This Ebola hysteria is just a small sample of what we will have to deal with when we are faced with a virulent airborne contagion.
Standards also matter in teacher training. Currently neither K.U. or K-State require biology teachers to take human anatomy and physiology. Now under the NGSS, teacher training programs nationwide can also drop botany and zoology and microbiology and Mendelian genetics. Of course, under the NCLB teach-to-the-test system, teachers are forced to align their lessons with what is on the future science assessments. In Kansas, those will be written to match the empty NGSS standards.
Good biology teachers will have to seize this moment to address this ignorance and go ahead and teach these vital concepts, not because of the standards, but in spite of them.