While the flu bug makes the rounds this winter, some high school students in Sioux Falls are concocting their own strains of threatening illnesses, but in a classroom project only. All that’s at stake is the survival of the planet!
It’s not a computer virus, but human viruses, bacteria and other microscopic threats that are on the minds of bio-lit students at New Technology High School.
“This is the project where I’m always constantly washing my hands and if anyone coughs, I bring them Kleenexes,” teacher Melissa Hittner said.
The students worked in groups to come up with a hypothetical disease, based upon real-world bugs, that can spread through the population and make millions of people sick.
“Currently, we’re making a strain based off of pneumonia. And what we’re doing basically, with that strain is we’re just adding some mutations such as changing the incubation period with it, meaning like how long somebody is contagious with it,” New Technology sophomore Jonathan Diaz said.
The students are encouraged to tap into their inner mad scientist, to create a worst-case scenario.
“An evolved version of the Ebola virus, so it is a hemorrhagic fever. Basically, that means it eats away at the tissue inside your body and makes you bleed from the inside-out. It’s really nasty,” New Tech sophomore Samantha Price said.
A simple game of chance created the random mutations their bugs need to thrive.
“Basically, we rolled the dice to choose our mutations, how many we would have. So, my group rolled a four,” Price said.
But the students must also use their scientific skills for good. They’ve been tasked to contain the strains their classmates have created.
“We’re actually going to be containing rabies. A mutated version of rabies that can spread through touch instead of just through bites, it will get a lot nastier that way,” Price said.
Pneumonia is a lot tougher to breath-in and get into your system when it’s represented as a Styrofoam ball with toothpicks sticking out. But getting rid of it by containing it and protecting the public is a much taller order in real life.
“I think it’s actually really interesting because it’s not only our disease we’re learning about, we’ll eventually be learning about many diseases and just getting a little background knowledge on them and the best way to treat it or to avoid it in general,” Diaz said.
“I think it’s a great project. They’ve got great minds in there, I hope they continue to use them for good,” Sioux Falls Public Health Manager Sandy Frentz said.
Experts with the Sioux Falls City Health Department have been working with the students to make sure they’re pursuing the right response.
“For example, if an organism was spread by contact to blood or body fluids, is it realistic to say you’d quarantine people because it’s not exactly the right intervention. So, just kind of whispering in their ears a little bit to help them down the right track,” Frentz said.
The students are learning about evolution and natural selection at the smallest scales.
“They start with a base pathogen so they don’t get too unrealistic because we don’t need any bad zombie movies in their presentations,” Hittner said.
A classroom assignment where learning is contagious.
The class project is based upon the non-fiction book “The Demon in the Freezer,” which refers to remaining samples of smallpox still kept in the United States. The students have been studying the book.