STEM Tuesday – Diseases and Pandemics — In the Classroom

Throughout history, infectious diseases have impacted humans around the world. Whenever a strange new disease emerges, scientists called epidemiologists study it to learn how it spreads, its effects on humans, and how to stop it.

The books we’re highlighting this month focus on some of the most infamous and deadly infectious diseases in history and the scientific work to study and contain them. They are a great starting point for different sciences activities and discussions in the classroom. Here are a few to try:

Outbreak! Plagues That Changed History by Bryn Barnard

Here’s an extensive evaluation of the causes and human reactions and interactions (from the 1300s to the present) to bubonic plague, smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, tuberculosis, and the 1918 influenza pandemic. This book examines how these diseases changed societies and what it will ultimately take to eliminate cholera worldwide. It also looks at how wealth, bias, and prejudice continue to affect governmental reactions to microbial evolution.

Classroom activity: Divide the class into small groups and assign each an infectious disease to study. Have them answer the following questions: What type of disease is this – virus or bacteria? How does it enter the human body? How does it spread? What effect did this disease have on people around the world? Have scientists been able to stop the spread of this disease? If so, how? If not, why not? Have each group present what they have learned to the class.

An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 by Jim Murphy

This book dramatically examines another “invisible stalker.” Using both first-hand witness and medical accounts, newspaper clippings, and contemporary images, it follows yellow fever’s arrival and spread throughout Philadelphia. Detailing the social, political, and medical conditions and struggles to combat this disease, this book examines the changes that the plague brought to modern medicine and the fear that it could reappear.

Classroom activity: Compare the historical yellow fever epidemic to the current Covid-19 pandemic. How would you document today’s pandemic for future generations? Have students create their own modern-day pandemic documentation – using first-hand witness accounts, newspaper articles, photographs, and other primary sources. What do they hope future generations will learn from their work?

Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary, by Gail Jarrow

When typhoid fever breaks out in New York, medical detective George Soper traces the outbreak to Mary Mallon. His job: to prevent her from infecting others. But Mary refuses to comply with quarantine and other medical directives. After all, she isn’t sick. So she continues cooking and passing on the disease. Personal freedom versus public health questions are once again relevant as we deliberate quarantines, lockdowns, and contact tracing.

Classroom activity: When an infectious disease is spreading through a community, should public health take priority over personal rights and freedoms? What are the pros and cons of each point of view? Divide students into two groups – one that prioritizes public health and one that prioritizes individual rights. Have each group prepare arguments that support their assigned point of view and debate the issue.

Fever Year- The Killer Flu of 1918: A Tragedy in Three Acts by Don Brown

Presented in a graphic novel format, this book tracks the course of the 1918 flu from Camp Funston, Kansas around the world. Many images look eerily familiar – empty streets and masks. A very accessible examination of the politics and science involved in battling the spread and ultimate containment of this flu. Additionally, it comments on current scientist’s desire to discover why this flu was so deadly by recreating it.

Classroom activity: The lessons we can learn from history are invaluable. After reading about the 1918 flu pandemic, ask students what they have learned about the spread of the flu virus and the effectiveness of different prevention methods taken in 1918. How have people applied these lessons learned from history to today’s Covid-19 pandemic? In what ways could we do better? What have you learned that you can use to help stop the spread of infectious disease?


Carla Mooney loves to explore the world around us and discover the details about how it works. An award-winning author of numerous nonfiction science books for kids and teens, she hopes to spark a healthy curiosity and love of science in today’s young people. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, three kids, and her dog. When not writing, she can often be spotted at a hockey rink for one of her kids’ games. Find her at, on Facebook @carlamooneyauthor, or on Twitter @carlawrites.

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