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While experts around the globe race to develop a vaccine for the COVID-19 pandemic, 30 youngsters are exploring the same subject through the Maine School of Science and Mathematics’ virtual summer program.
But while those top scientists are converging on the world’s top laboratories, the MSSM campers know no such boundaries — even time travel is an option.
That’s one luxury of a weeklong course based on “The Case of the COVID Crisis,” a book penned by Pendred “Penny” Noyce M.D., a Boston-based author and publisher with Maine ties who has written 14 previous books for young people, mostly about science.
“Our whole purpose is to get kids excited about learning through literature,” she said. “With a lot of our books people will say it may be part of a curriculum but with a lot of our books we’re trying to write about things that are not in the curriculum but will open kids’ eyes in a different way.”
“The Case of the COVID Crisis” is the latest in Noyce’s Galactic Academy of Science adventure series produced by Tumblehome Learning Inc., a nonprofit publisher dedicated to developing innovative STEM books, curriculum and other materials for children of all ages.
In this book, middle-schoolers Mae and Clinton travel through time with Selectra Volt, their guide from the future, to meet with scientists from the past about previous outbreaks ranging from measles and smallpox to the 1918 flu and Ebola in an effort to solve modern mysteries like the coronavirus.
“It’s pretty cool,” said 13-year-old Maeve Wilcox, a third-year participant in MSSM’s summer program who will be an eighth-grader at Waterville Junior High School this fall. “Some parts of it you’re like, ‘Yeah, I’ve kind of heard that before,’ but other times it’s like, ‘Whoa, I’ve never heard anything like that.’ It was pretty interesting.
“We watched the news and in school we learned a little bit [about the pandemic], but we’ve definitely learned a lot from this course.”
Noyce and Jan Mokros, Ph.D. of Brunswick, a senior research scientist for Science Education Solutions, had crafted an unrelated proposal designed to promote data literacy for children when the coronavirus rose to prominence early this year.
They quickly revised their plans to focus on the emerging crisis.
“For this book there wasn’t going to be a solution in the short run, but we decided to write it as we go and see what happens,” Noyce said.
As Noyce began writing “The Case of the COVID Crisis”, a somewhat fluid occupation given the evolving dynamics of the pandemic, weekly podcasts featuring the book’s main characters were created to complement the book and related data was curated in order for the middle school-age target audience to use in its own research.
“All of this was learning on the fly but we were happy with it,” Noyce said. “Our goals were, first of all, to give kids ways of thinking about COVID in the context that there had been pandemics and epidemics throughout history that people have had to deal with, and to provide some information without frightening them.
“For Jan the goal was for the kids to understand that data is their friend and that they can actually look at data and figure things out from it and ask their own questions.”
Noyce and Mokros initially partnered with the Boston Museum of Science, where approximately 50 youngsters took part in a nine-week virtual book camp.
The results of a post-camp survey proved encouraging, as several students indicated interest in becoming an epidemiologist or working in data science or virology, with the goal for the latter of helping to develop future vaccines one day.
“I think it worked in the sense that we were giving them information that gave them a feeling of more power,” Noyce said. “A number of them said they were comfortable with data before and a number said they had learned to become more comfortable with data as a result of the club.”
“The Case of the COVID Crisis” also represented a great fit for the Maine School of Science and Mathematics’ summer program, according to Ryan McDonald, director of the school’s summer programs and public relations coordinator.
“It’s the perfect class because it’s timely. All of these kids are going to be really educated, probably more than a lot of adults,” he said. “If this class was going on next summer the timing would still be good, but the timing now and the fact the program is so polished is amazing and the fact [Noyce and Mokros] are both doctors adds so much credibility.”
The virtual camp offered by the Limestone-based MSSM began Monday and continued for two hours each afternoon throughout the week.
Students used online tools like the Common Online Data Analysis Platform, or CODAP, to organize data for the purpose of discovering trends and asking questions.
“With COVID data we often have the kids look at graphs of particular places where things are under control,” Mokros said. “Then we ask them to link what’s happened in those places to keep the number of cases down.”
Worldwide and national data were supplemented with information from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to enhance its collective relevance to the Pine Tree State audience.
“There are all kinds of data that guide people’s behavior, and we’re trying to make that link through the narrative and also by having them do activities,” Mokros said.
MSSM campers were eager for their final day of the class, which was to be highlighted by a virtual visit from Maine CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah.
Maeve Wilcox was set to ask Shah about which existing virus is most similar to COVID, while by Wednesday twin brother Cormac was keeping his inquiry to himself.
“I’m not 100 percent sure,” he said. “I’ll probably figure one out today or tomorrow.”
Noyce and Mokros plan to apply in August for a National Science Foundation grant that would enable them to expand their effort. That would include linking their program with “Imagine Science,” a partnership among four leading national youth organizations — the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, 4-H, the Y and Girls Inc. — to bridge the STEM gap by motivating historically under-represented youth.
“People don’t just learn about epidemiology, for example,” Mokros said. “It’s a very data-based profession and we’re hoping to interest kids in this work because there’s always going to be some disease, whether it’s vector-borne like Lyme or infectious like the COVID that’s out there. We want kids to learn how they can get involved.”