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Last Updated

26 Apr 2003

Source: Ventura County Star (CA), April 26, 2003

Students curb fake disease outbreaks

By Erinn Hutkin

Emily Thompson recommends the U.S. government suspend dog shows to reduce the spread of bubonic plague by fleas.

Sean Bhardwaj suggests quarantining those infected with cholera as a harsh --but effective -- way to keep the virus at bay.

Megan Lysaght feels public service announcements are needed to convince people to vaccinate against influenza.

Tenth graders at Foothill Technology High School sound like experts when they talk about disease. Some can recite offhand that the last case of smallpox in the United States was in 1949, or they can explain the different types of influenza.

Just weeks ago, in early March, these same 10th graders were taken to a surprise assembly. They watched a mock news report explaining there were outbreaks of nine contagious diseases in five U.S. cities.

Their mission, they learned, was to research a disease and devise ways to solve the outbreak. Then, they were to report their findings to the president.

For the second straight year, the Ventura school's 200-plus 10th graders participated in a class project about disease outbreaks. They broke into groups, picked a disease and researched the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site. They wrote and rewrote three options for curbing the disease. They made a Web site, as well as a public service announcement -- all in preparation to suggest a solution to the president.

At college-prep based Foothill High, each grade level is assigned a yearly project.

With the SARS epidemic and threats of bioterrorism, science department chair Wendi Butler said the project held particular relevance.

Besides being a hands-on method of learning science, the project was incorporated into other Foothill classes. Tenth graders learned about infectious diseases in biology. In English, they read about disease and discussed social implications. History classes focused on the origins of public health.

"All these things fit the standards we are supposed to teach. It fit seamlessly into our year," Butler said. "We wanted to challenge our kids to look at real world problems."

This week, dressed in dark suits and long skirts -- and an occasional pair of flip-flops or clunky sneakers -- students showed their findings to a presidential panel. The group included local physicians, nurses, a county epidemiologist and the director of biotechnology at Ventura College. They were directed to listen to the students and to ask tough questions.

In groups of three or four, formally dressed sophomores gave power-point presentations on diseases like anthrax, Ebola and West Nile. They said options for controlling cross-country outbreaks involved letting the disease run its course, eradicating the disease or controlling it to stop its transmission. Each group recommended one of the three options to the panel.

Lysaght, 15, was part of a group studying influenza. She liked the project because it was timely.

"Because of the war, I thought it was really relevant ... the different ways our country would go about responding and protecting us," she said. "I like that a lot."

Before presenting, some students admitted to suffering from a case of the jitters. They were being grilled by experts, and the project was worth 30 percent of this semester's science grade.

Butler, however, reported judges were impressed by the students' knowledge. She estimated that no one will receive a grade lower than a C.