Mouldy bread and microscopic beasts

Issue: Volume 99, Number 12

Posted: 31 July 2020
Reference #: 1HA9NW

Kiwi parents may not thank Matt Boucher when they find glitter and bags of mouldy sliced bread around the house, but there’s some serious learning about pandemics going on.

Matt Boucher created an online course for young children to help them understand the science behind Covid-19.

Matt Boucher is deputy principal at Thorndon School in Wellington and is passionate about microbiology and public health messaging. 

In 2017, he did a two-term placement at the pathology department at the University of Otago in Wellington as part of the Royal Society Te Apārangi’s Science Teaching Leadership Programme. It has since resulted in him collaborating with experts from the University of Otago on some public health projects for school children around New Zealand.

“I shadowed some of those doctors and did a lot of experiments growing bacteria in the lab. A year later, along with a couple of infectious diseases pharmacists, we started a poster competition. 

“We put out a whole list of different resources and activities schools could do, such as growing mould on bread that had been handled with washed and unwashed hands. The year after that we managed to get some funding through HQSC [Health Quality and Safety Commission]. They were making a big push on hygiene and we organised a nationwide poster competition. 

Covid-19 reaches New Zealand

Fast-forward to March 2020 when a pandemic reached New Zealand’s shores and Matt spent the school holidays in March putting together a MOOC (massive open online course) for children in Years 5–10 called Microscopic beasts and how to fight them. 

The course teaches about the microscopic world, cells, microbes and disease and ties into the Living World and Nature of Science strands with a focus on interpreting representations – looking at models, diagrams and graphs. 

By mid-June over 1,000 students from 100 schools had enrolled in the free online course.

“I wanted to contribute something to help provide online learning content for my students. I could see that this pandemic has been very worrying for students, and I believe the best way to conquer fear is through understanding. So I thought I would find a way that kids can learn about the science behind Covid-19 and the spread of disease, at home at their own pace,” he says.

While Matt was taking part in the science teaching leadership programme in 2017, he did some online courses about infectious diseases and epidemiology through Coursera from universities like Yale and Stanford, which use a similar format to a MOOC.

“I was already familiar with the format and the content because of the work I’d done so it just seemed perfect when this whole lockdown came up to think, ‘Yeah, let’s use that’.”

Hands-on learning

Microscopic beasts and how to fight them features a series of units covering topics such as scale (from the microscopically tiny to huge), cells – the building blocks of life – and fighting and preventing disease. Each unit features lessons, videos (recorded in Matt’s shed), activities and quizzes. 

Matt hopes that teachers and students will continue to use the course – and participate in a Citizen Science experiment to show and record how viruses and bacteria spread and the difference handwashing and cleaning surfaces makes. 

The Grand Experiment has student participants growing mould on bread, as well as tracking the spread of glitter around a house in order to model the spread of germs and test the effectiveness of cleaning surfaces and hand washing.

“There are two different bread experiments. One is about taking slices of white bread and treating each slice differently: not handling it at all, using a glove, handling it with clean hands, hands that were cleaned with hand sanitizer and hands that were cleaned with soap and water. Then putting each slice in a plastic bag and seeing what mould grows on each over one, then two weeks.

“The other bread experiment involves touching surfaces such as a doorknob with pieces of bread before and after cleaning it with antibacterial cleaner. We would expect more mould to grow on the bread from the unclean handle. It’s not mould that usually makes us sick – it is bacteria and viruses. But they travel in the same way so we can use mould as a proxy.”

The Grand Experiment

Matt is involved in a TLRI (Teaching and Learning Research Initiative) research project in conjunction with Victoria University and Waikato University on the use of Online Citizen Science (OCS) projects in the classroom.

He has worked with lecturer Dr Cathal Doyle from Victoria University to create the bespoke OCS How to fight microscopic beasts: the grand experiment. He hopes that students around the country will be involved in observations and data collection using the science capabilities(external link) of Gathering and Interpreting data and Engaging with Science. A team of keen Thorndon School students will collate and graph results, working on Interpreting Representations.

“My students will be able to talk about things like: ‘We saw the ones with unwashed hands are much higher on the scale of mould than washed hands, so this shows us it’s better to wash your hands’. The idea is they then make some graphs and presentations that they disseminate to the participants and can update on a regular basis.”

Science literacy important

Matt says information about how disease spreads and keeping ourselves healthy is particularly important – and relevant – during the current Covid crisis but he also believes that tamariki respond better to messages when they understand them.

“Those who understand it better are not so afraid of it, but then it’s also important for everybody to have that scientific literacy. Look at what’s happening in the States, with people saying: ‘It’s all a hoax and I don’t need to wear a mask’. An educated population can say: ‘Actually I understand how diseases spread and why we’re doing this’,” explains Matt.

While the Microscopic Beasts course is specific to Covid-19, Matt believes that it will continue to be relevant for years to come.

“Covid-19 will still be an issue for years to come, but it’s generic enough that even though that’s the context, it still applies to all bacteria and viruses and infectious diseases.”

Quizzes assess skills

The quizzes that feature throughout the course were written by Matt to assess the scientific capability of interpreting representations. 

“Everything was about looking at a picture, a scale model, an electron microscope photograph. Down towards more of the Covid stuff, pictures are about flattening the curve and asking them things like: What does that show you? What is flattening the curve?

“That way I could have them work on a real scientific skill without physically being present or having them write anything in detail. They could take a quiz that’s still skill-based.”

Flexible learning

Matt says he has tried to curate and write content which will be helpful for teachers – whether it’s used for distance learning or in the classroom.

“I think it could be really helpful for the context of kids being able to work self-paced and as a way to organise resources in a logical way. That’s often the struggle for teachers: you can create stuff, you can also go and find stuff, but even that is quite hard because you’ve got to put these things together in a logical way. Here it’s done, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. 

“This is where we’re at, we’re all teaching online, but it’s also self-paced. Some students would pick and choose the activities and some would just pick one that they really liked. Some could take that and work their way through one of the chapters in a week, some would bash it out in a day. It’s really flexible,” says Matt.

Student kōrero about Microscopic beasts  

  • At first, I was very scared about Covid-19, so thank you. My favourite bit of it was when you showed the very, very close objects and the cell city on Minecraft (by the way, I love Minecraft). Sayler, Year 7, St Andrew’s College, Christchurch

  • I learned all about viruses and what they do and how they aren’t all bad. I learnt about all the cells and the ‘cell city’. I liked how they had all different things included in the online course and it wasn’t based only on one thing (e.g. the cells). Ryan, Year 8, Matamata Intermediate

  • I really learnt a lot; I was interested in cells, bacteria and viruses from the beginning, and this helped me understand a lot about them. I liked your approach, calm but funny. It was a really complicated subject, but you explained them like a beast! Ranuga, Year 8, St Mary’s School, Blenheim

  • I have enjoyed learning through Matt’s online course. I learned that, below metres and centimetres, there are nanometres. I like seeing different viruses that I can’t see with my naked eye. Aoi, Year 6, Thorndon School

  • I have learnt a lot about viruses and now have a better understanding about how they can harm you and how they spread. I loved the way it was set up with videos and interactive games. I was happy that my teacher set it for inquiry. Sophia, Year 7, Belmont Intermediate, Auckland

  • I loved the easy set-up and variety of lessons you provided. The quizzes were super fun too. I learnt more about viruses and how they spread, which was perfect to learn about in lockdown. I could easily see my progress and what I was moving onto next. This type of learning was good for during lockdown and would be good to use anytime along with hands-on activities!  Eva, Year 6, Hill School Pukekohe

Resources on the microscopic world and online citizen science (OCS) projects 

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BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:26 am, 31 July 2020

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