Developing a Microbiology Curriculum for Elementary Students

Article excerpt

Why would anyone try to teach the science of microbiology to students in elementary school? Isn't it too abstract and too technical for them to grasp? Wouldn't it be best to wait until middle school or even high school to introduce this subject?

Most teachers and parents would say, "Yes, these children are not ready for high-tech science yet." But wait a minute...aren't they being introduced to the solar system, its stars, planets, and such esoteric concepts as "black holes" in the Montessori curriculum already?

Maria Montessori observed that elementary students have the need to classify the world into categories. This type of classification work is extremely appealing to 6- to 12-year-olds; and these students are fascinated to learn the oldest fossil, the highest mountain, and the biggest state. At the other end of the scale, they also want to know the youngest child in a class, the deepest spot in the ocean, and the smallest creature.

There is nothing inherently high-tech about the study of the smallest of living creatures-any more than there is anything "high-tech" about the study of the universe. Even the tools of these two disciplines-the microscope for microbiology and the telescope for astronomy-are readily available and usable for and by elementary students.

In some ways, the study of the world of the very small makes even more sense than the study of astronomy for these children. Anyone who has ever watched elementary students engaged in free play out of doors knows that they are already highly attuned to the world of the small. These students can point out patterns and differences in the many insects that attract their attention. Many are already engaged in making collections of rocks, insects, leaves, flowers, and seeds.

It is not such a huge leap for them to imagine a world that is even smaller than their eyes can see. (After all, they already know that they can see much smaller things with more detail than many middle-aged adults.) What is difficult for them to grasp is how much smaller some microorganisms are than the eye can see. But this quantitative aspect is not essential to a basic understanding of the subject.

In addition to the inherent attraction that elementary students have to small things, there is another motivation for them to learn about microbiology. They are also quite familiar with being sick. And they have heard their parents, grandparents, teachers, and older siblings talking about bacteria and viruses. But, in general, these are just words to them. They have no way to classify or categorize them except that, "They make me sick."

One of my goals in designing a curriculum in microbiology for the late elementary students in my class several years ago at the Center for Education in Bradenton, FL, was to help them gain control over their lives. If they knew how a bacteria or virus could make them sick, they could also come to understand what they have the power to do for themselves to keep themselves well.

Finally, as a late elementary Montessori teacher (who also had a PhD in Microbiology), I was attracted to the challenge of creating a curriculum in microbiology that would be scientifically accurate while developmentally appropriate, engaging, and fun for the 9- to 12-year-olds in my charge.

My plan was to tie all the lessons into the overall goal of the curriculum. That goal was something very practical and useful to these students, and something that I felt the students could bring to their families to help reinforce an important public health concept that many nonmedical personnel don't fully grasp.

The Take-Home Message

The take-home message of my microbiology curriculum was that:

1. The mechanisms of disease production by bacteria and by viruses are fundamentally different.

2. Antibiotics only work against bacteria.

3. There is no antibiotic that can cure a viral disease.

(In fact, taking antibiotics when they are not needed can result in a larger problem for the individual and for all of human society. …