Let’s just imagine for a moment that everyone in the United States is susceptible to both measles and Ebola. Did you know that if both of these diseases were spreading in the U.S., there would be many more measles infections than Ebola infections?

EEB graduate students Kevin Bakker and Micaela Martinez-Bakker recently had some fun outside of their normal routine – teaching 240 sixth graders from DeWitt, Mich. about infectious disease and scientific inquiry.

The sixth graders deduced why the scenario above is fortunately not the case for measles in the U.S. – because of vaccines! 

Using research on birth seasonality from a paper they published in 2014 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B as background information, the students formed hypotheses on the timing of peak birth rates in their classroom. After each student prepared a hypothesis, they collected the birth month from each student via sticky notes on poster board and compared their collected data to the state of Michigan birth data for their birth year, 2003.

“We asked the students why the classroom's data may have been different than the state of Michigan's and they came up with some great ideas – small sample size, seasonality in DeWitt may be different from the rest of the state, socioeconomic differences, and more,” said Bakker.

“Along with the birth seasonality, we discussed birth rates across the globe,” he continued. “The students were able to identify which countries had the highest birth rates (most of Africa), and current highest populations (China, India, USA, Indonesia, Brazil), and then we hypothesized which countries would have the highest population 100 years from now.” 

Bakker and Bakker-Martinez also taught the students epidemiological concepts and studied global geographic patterns of measles incidence.

“We discussed R0 – which is the term that describes the infectiousness of a disease by giving the average number of people an infected individual can infect,” he said. “We compared measles to Ebola, and demonstrated through a spread of disease activity (with pointing and sitting) that measles is much more infectious that Ebola.”

Overall the students at Herbison Middle School asked very good questions, Bakker recalled and described the experience as “more of an interactive discussion rather than a lecture.”

Read a related blog post by Martinez-Bakker

Micaela Martinez-Bakker collects birth seasonality data from the students as part of an exercise on the scientific method.