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Thoughts and Viruses Interdisciplinary Inquiry Unit

-by Dave Scott, Grade 8 Humanities

This year one of the goals of the Grade 8 team was to undertake an interdisciplinary unit that brought together the four core subject areas of math, science, language arts, and social studies. With the aid of Erin Couillard, PD and outreach coordinator, after an afternoon planning session seeking an inquiry topic and question that was generous enough to engage all these domains, the team settled on a unit exploring the similarities between how viruses spread, and how ideas, social movements, and trends can become contagious in similar ways. Here we saw a question that could help us simultaneously explore the topic of cells and systems in the science curriculum, exponential growth in the area of math, how the Renaissance sparked the growth and exchange of ideas and knowledge across Europe in the social studies program, and a myriad of outcomes in language arts including revising understandings and ideas by connecting new and prior knowledge and experiences.

Housed in this blog we created for the unit, we organized our exploration of this topic around the following overarching “essential” question (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005):

1. What are the two most significant reasons why a thought or virus has a revolutionary impact on people and the world? 

Embedded within this question, we also structured the activities and lectures to help students think about the following sub questions:

1. How do viruses and thoughts spread in similar ways? 

2. In what ways do the spread of ideas and viruses revolutionize/change our world? 

In asking these “essential questions”, we sought inquiry questions that would help guide this unit around “big ideas” that emerge from the content under study. According to Wiggins and McTighe, a question is an essential question if it lies “at the heart of a subject or curriculum (as opposed to being either trivial or leading), and [promotes] inquiry and uncoverage of a subject” (p. 342). Note that drawing on the insights of Case (2005), in addition, we also made this a critical question in the sense that the question requires a reasoned judgment among options and also needs criteria to make this judgment (i.e., has the deepest, most long term impact). Using the essential questions we had created, our inquiry unit involved a series of activities and mini-lectures structured to help students think more deeply about these questions.

Activities Created for our Interdisciplinary Inquiry Unit 

Activity 1 - Trip to Mount Royal University: Our first activity involved a trip to Mount Royal University where students went through a series of four mini lectures with professors offering their expertise in areas as diverse as the nature of viruses, the background behind the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and how growth occurs exponentially. Here is a video clip of some highlights from the presentations:
Activity 2 - Virus simulation activity: Bringing all 100 grade 8’s down to our Indoor Activity Centre, Louis Cheng and Kevin Sonico supplied each student with a Dixie Cup of water and asked them to mingle. When they yelled stop, students were asked to pass their water back and fourth with those beside them. Unbeknownst to them, two of these cups contained clear, colourless liquid sodium hydroxide which turns pink when the indicator phenolphthalein is added. By the end, of a total 100 kids, only four students had water that did not turn pink and were uninfected. In doing this activity we wanted students to understand how easily and quickly a contagious virus can spread exponentially, from only two students to a large group.

Activity 3 - TED Talk and Discussion: Now wishing to make further connections between how thoughts and viruses spread in similar ways, we showed students the following TED talks and then had a class discussion with each of our homerooms: Evan Williams on listening to Twitter users and Nicholas Christakis: How social networks predict epidemics

Activity 4 - Contagion, the Movie: Seeking a way to bring to life the nature of how viruses spread and subsequently could impact the world, we watched the movie Contagion with students. In this film a virus that jumps from a bat, to a pig, and then the human population becomes a global-wide pandemic. Scientists have praised the accurate depiction of medical and scientific practices in the film, which was written with the cooperation of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Activity 5 - Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point Lecture: In creating this inquiry unit we were inspired by the work of Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point. Drawing on examples as wide ranging as the rise of Hush Puppies as a fashion trend in the early 90’s to a dramatic decrease in crime in New York during the same period, Gladwell identifies a common moment of critical mass when something tipped, causing, in these cases, a dramatic increase in sales and dramatic decrease in crime. Gladwell argues that there are three primary factors in play to explain why some phenomena tip and others don’t: 1) The law of the few, 2) The stickiness factor, and 3) The power of context. Using this PowerPoint modified from a presentation by Professor Michael Kearns, audio from Gladwell’s book, along with their own explanation, David Scott and Erin Couillard presented Gladwell’s ideas to the grade 8’s. Here The Tipping Point Graphic Organizer we used to help students take notes.

Activity 6 - “Café” Discussion with Professors from Mount Royal: As a way to help students discuss our overarching inquiry question in a small group setting, we invited the professors from Mount Royal students first encountered at the beginning of the unit to CSS. In groups of 8-10 and moderated by a professor as well as ourselves, students discussed their position on: the two most significant reasons why a thought or virus has a revolutionary impact on people and the world? To help guide their discussion, we created this graphic organizer.


In terms of asking students to learn more about this topic and engage our inquiry question, there were two main assignments for this unit.

Assignment 1 - Wanted Poster

Working in groups of two we asked students to make a Wanted Poster choosing one social movements/trends and one of the viruses below. The full assignment outline can be found on our inquiry unit blog. Some of the elements we asked students to include in their poster include:
  • Photo (picture/diagram) 
  • Description (alias – scientific and common name) 
  • Organism’s or social movements/trend’s M.O. (police jargon) how the organism or movement infects others and spreads 
  • Most common victims to prey upon 

Here is the Wanted Poster Rubric we used for this assignment.

Examples of student work in Prezi form:

Assignment 2 - Podcast Reflection

Drawing on a journal students were given to track ideas, examples, and questions that emerged through the inquiry unit, students were asked to respond to our overarching inquiry question in podcast form:

1. What are the two most significant reasons why a thought or virus has a revolutionary impact on people and the world? 

For this assignment, students were specially asked to draw on the three primary factors that Gladwell argues explain why some phenomena tip and others don’t: 1) The law of the few, 2) The stickiness factor, and 3) The power of context.

Here is the Podcast Graphic Organizer Reflection Sheet we used.  This is the Podcast Reflection Rubric we used to evaluate their work.

Student Podcast example:


Garry McKinnon said...

Dave, you have done a great job on behalf of your colleagues and your students in describing the very intriguing and engaging inter-disciplinary exploration of the spread of ideas and viruses. The video clip highlights the richness of the learning activities which were enhanced with the visit to Mount Royal University and the involvement of the Mount Royal University professors along with the Calgary Science School teachers in facilitating the CSS Café discussion. I was impressed with the planning and organization of the series of interconnected activities with each having a special purpose and each activity contributing to the relevance and richness of the overall learning experience. The assignment outlines, rubric, examples of student work, podcast graphics organizer and the student podcast will serve as valuable resources for other teachers to use in creating their own interdisciplinary learning activities. Very impressive!

Wendy Baillie said...

Talk about forging connections!! What a fantastic, innovative, authentic learning experience for your students.

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