Science Happens in a Social Context
Author: Catharine Niuzzo Honaman

Time: 2 classes
Preparation Time: 30 minutes to read lesson and make copies of matrix

Scientist/historian matrix:
- Student version
- Teacher Version

Much of this unit has been an exploration of how history sees the spread of disease as a function of the trade routes. Students have been using functional texts and practicing the skills of synthesizing information from multiple sources. In this lesson the students will take that ability to synthesize one step further by pulling together how both science and history view the nature and transmission of diseases. To truly understand contagions one must be able to understand all the factors that foster and perpetuate environmental health problems from their biology to their societal impact.

Students will be able to:
1. Identify the different ways scientists and historians view the same data by contrasting the different vocabulary used and different focuses of attention
2. Examine and analyze conditions which facilitate the transmission of disease by seeing how interconnected methods of the spread of disease are. Students will synthesize information from multiple sources to draw conclusions.

English Education Standards
Strand 1: Concept 4: Vocabulary
PO 3. Determine how the meaning of the text is affected by the writer’s word choice
Strand 2: Concept 2: Functional Text
PO 2. Synthesize information from multiple sources to draw conclusions

Teacher Background
It would be helpful to look at the lessons that the science and social studies teachers presented in the first two weeks of this unit. Since this lesson pulls together what the students have learned in their science and social studies classes the more you understand what is happening in those two disciplines in this unit, plus you will be a more important resource to the students.



1. In the first three weeks of this quarter the students have examined the nature of disease from the perspectives of scientists, historians, and, through literature, also from the perspective of people affected by the illnesses. Begin the class by asking the students how scientists look at disease, i.e., that it is a biological event. Then ask them how historians view disease, i.e., that it is the outcome of certain conditions created by people as they come together in societies. And finally, how do artists and writers view disease? Would they think that it is a force behind human suffering which the writer chronicles and sometimes tries to make sense of spiritually and emotionally?

2. In school we break things down into different components to be able to study them more easily. But nothing takes place in isolation, science happens in a social context. To understand disease authentically it is necessary to make the connections between biological events and human interaction. Both biological functions and human actions come together to help diseases spread. Now it is necessary to have the students look at various conditions using two separate ways of understanding things.

3. Have the students get together in small groups of two or three to fill out the scientist/historian matrix. For each method of transmission of a disease they must describe how a scientist would view the factor and then how an historian would see the same factor, using the appropriate vocabulary for the two disciplines. There are very specific words that are used in science and history to describe events or conditions. Ask the students to try to use new terms that they have learned in the first few weeks of the quarter to be as precise as possible. Then the students need to make educated guesses about which diseases would be found and spread by the conditions in each category.

4. If the students have a hard time getting a handle on this lesson, you may wish to do the first “method of transmission” with them as a class.

This lesson began with a discussion of how historians, scientists, and artists view the same thing- a disease. While the focus of this lesson has been the ways that history and science study a contagion, it is important to acknowledge that there are other paths to knowledge. People have used the arts and spirituality to also comprehend the nature of illness and how it affects both the physical and emotional world of groups of people throughout history. Can the students think of any books, plays, poems, or other artistic pieces that have examined how disease affected the writer or his or her community? The next learning cycle will be about this realm of literature.


Embedded Assessment
The ways to best assess student learning in this lesson are by evaluating the quality of the students’ participation in the beginning and closing class discussions, to see how much each student contributes to the group work on the matrix, and finally, to use the accuracy of the answers on the matrix.


PULSE is a project of the Community Outreach and Education Program of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center and is funded by:

NIH/NCRR award #16260-01A1
The Community Outreach and Education Program is part of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center: an NIEHS Award


Supported by NIEHS grant # ES06694

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Last update: November 10, 2009
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