WJU receives $1.2M for a flu study project

WHEELING – Researchers at Wheeling Jesuit University will receive $1.2 million over the next five years from the National Institutes of Health to develop learning activities to teach high school students about biology using historic pandemic flu outbreaks as a model to engage young learners.

WJU will create, pilot test and disseminate instructional activities related to the project “Pandem-Sim: Saving the World With Biology.” The project was funded by the Science Education Partnership Award program at NIH.

“The educational researchers at Wheeling Jesuit are proposing an ingenious way of engaging young adults in the learning process,” said the Rev. James Fleming, president of WJU. “High school students hear about ebola outbreaks in Guinea and sporadic foodborne outbreaks in the U.S. and they flock to TV shows like ‘Contagion’ and movies like ‘World War Z.’ The technology-supported simulated pandemics being developed by our educational researchers will grab and hold students’ attention in ways that textbooks cannot.”

Dr. Charles Wood, the project’s principal investigator, said the first activity will be creating a live simulation of new pandemic outbreaks. Students will play the roles of medical scientists, tracking the spread of the disease, isolating the specific flu strain, determining effective treatments to stop the spread and issuing flu emergency bulletins.

The simulation builds on a successful previous NIH-funded project, CyberSurgeons, and will be developed in conjunction with WJU’s Challenger Learning Center. Pandem-Sim will be offered via live videoconferencing to classrooms in West Virginia and around the world.

“Pandem-Sim is a tool to immerse students in the science of such diseases and their spread, and to encourage students to become the next generation of epidemiologists whose job will be to save the world,” Wood said.

Students will use Google Maps to track the spread of disease cases, view videos of patient interviews, match images of microscope slides of new flu tissue samples with known flu strains and run models of epidemic spread.

To ensure the accuracy and realism of Pandem-Sim, the team will be advised by Dr. William Mercer, Wheeling-Ohio County health officer; Dr. Somu Chatterjee, epidemiologist at the University of Kentucky Clinical Sciences Department; and Professor Thomas Songer at the School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh. Pilot testing will occur at schools in western Pennsylvania.

“Students learn not only the science content involved in the epidemiology component, but also gain a greatly increased awareness of the scientific method used in the field investigations, statistics of epidemiology and related careers,” Mercer said.