When science educator Carol Brown started developing materials to teach about vaccines and information literacy in K-12 classrooms, she brought in a special consultant to help with creating resources for younger elementary children: her four-and-a-half-year-old son.
“High school resources were easier for me to develop because that’s where I taught,” said Brown, a University of Alberta Education alumnus who is hoping to embark on her PhD this year. “My son was a useful resource and my friends’ kids were helpful in thinking about meeting younger students where they were, as was sharing resources with elementary education colleagues to see what they would find useful.”
Brown said that meeting students where they are is crucial, and not just in terms of ensuring the material is grade level-appropriate. Given the potential for controversy around socioscientific issues like vaccination and climate change, educators need to tread the fine line of laying out scientific evidence while nurturing curiosity among learners.
“As science teachers, we need to encourage question-asking, we need to create a space where people feel safe to ask questions without being judged,” Brown said. “We can’t tell people outright that they’re wrong, which closes down the possibility of them even listening. We need to model open-mindedness as educators, and the willingness to admit when we’re wrong as educators in order to foster that in our learners.”
The resources Brown has created are part of a project, Vaccine & Hesitancy: Teaching for Critical Thinking, that grew from the partnership between the Faculty of Education’s Centre for Mathematics, Science and Technology Education (CMASTE) and GlycoNet, a network of more than 175 researchers at 35 institutions across Canada, including the University of Alberta, focused on cancer, chronic diseases, infectious diseases, and neurodegenerative diseases.
“We have a long existing relationship with CMASTE, providing professional development opportunities to Canadian science educators,” said GlycoNet CEO Elizabeth Nanak. “When we saw an opportunity to improve knowledge surrounding vaccines, GlycoNet applied for a NSERC PromoScience grant to encourage vaccine confidence. This funding and collaboration with CMASTE provided the foundation to quickly develop and disseminate classroom materials to answer very pressing needs.”
“The grant was approved on the basis that we would produce resources that showcased the science, but ... they would not be just about vaccines,” said Kerry Rose, director of CMASTE. “This is about scientific literacy. Our goal is to make these resources so they can be used after the pandemic is over. They’re about evaluating which information sources to trust in and outside of school.”
Some of the videos and text resources are intended for early elementary learners, such as those that centre on the storybook The Sad Little Fact by Jonathan Winter and Peter Oswald, which Brown’s son found at the library. Others, intended for junior and high school students, examine the history and science of vaccines, and challenge students to identify reliable information sources on which to base health decisions.
“We have six different scenarios where people have to decide if they should get a vaccine or not. On purpose some are designed so that when students do the research, they might find it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to get a particular vaccine,” Rose said. “In some cases, there’s pros and cons. It’s designed to help students realize vaccine decision-making is a risks-vs-benefits kind of thing, and the kinds of research you would do to find out those risks and benefits.”
The resources also include interviews with GlycoNet scientists like U of A pediatric cardiologist Dr. Lori West and McMaster University immunologist Dr. Dawn Bowdish, who talk about how to have constructive conversations around socioscientific issues like COVID-19, as well as encouraging students to consider careers in science.
Brown says she hopes the resources will give teachers a way to approach important topics that might seem too contentious to take up in the present moment, when vaccination and other public health measures are subject to backlash.
“There have been other vaccines in the news like the MMR [measles-mumps-rubella] vaccine, which some celebrities have inaccurately linked to autism, and the ramifications of that persisted for a long time. It’s not the first time vaccinations have been a hot topic, but they’re in the public eye much more. Hopefully these resources will give teachers a way of addressing these topics that they feel comfortable with.”
Since late 2021, CMASTE has organized virtual professional development sessions around these materials to help educators across Canada start using them immediately. Rose says the the speed with which the project came together—in the space of less than a year—shows interdisciplinary collaboration and knowledge mobilization for the public good in action.
“I think it’s a great example of a situation when you have a pre-existing relationship between faculties and leverage to reach a lot of people in meaningful ways,” Rose said. “Reaching preservice and practicing teachers as they’re teaching in front of thousands of students about vaccine hesitancy and scientific literacy—I can’t think of a more appropriate project to be working on right now.”
Photo: Science educator Carol Brown acquaints elementary educators with The Sad Little Fact, a storybook that introduces young learners to information literacy, at a professional development session presented by CMASTE and GlycoNet (photo: GlycoNet).