Viking New Tech classroom turns into lab as students study viruses

Viking New Tech English Teacher Aimee Morton (left) observes as freshman students Carter Mertz (center) and Anna Pence work on their model of the Ebola virus. The class has been studying how viruses work, what steps a community should take to contain a virus outbreak and how to avoid a potential widespread epidemic.
Viking New Tech English Teacher Aimee Morton (left) observes as freshman students Carter Mertz (center) and Anna Pence work on their model of the Ebola virus. The class has been studying how viruses work, what steps a community should take to contain a virus outbreak and how to avoid a potential widespread epidemic. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin

Originally published Jan. 16, 2017.

In a darkened room, some 20 teenagers are tackling what could be a nightmare of an issue – if it became reality. And they are learning that the enemy, smaller than can be seen with the human eye, is fierce.

It’s called “The Hot Zone” project, a study of viruses, their virulent nature and the havoc they’ve wreaked on humankind throughout history.

The Viking New Tech classroom has been transformed to resemble a biohazard Level 4 laboratory, according to VNT science teacher Chelsea Noffsinger.

“We made them (the students) ID badges, and they had to have those ID badges to get into the laboratory,” she says. “We dressed up like scientists, like if they were in a lab.”

The dual “BioLit” class, taught by Noffsinger and English literature teacher Aimee Morton, combines the two subjects to present the scenario. The students are studying viruses up close, in particular the Ebola virus which has ravaged West Africa. They are reading the book, “The Hot Zone,” by Richard Preston, a true, terrifying story which chronicles the emergence of the Ebola virus in the 1980s, a highly infectious, deadly virus from the central African rain forest that made its way to the U.S.

“As they read that book and learn about virus transmission and epidemics and how they have to quarantine people and contain all of that, they’re also going to be learning about DNA and RNA and viruses,” Noffsinger said. “I hope they’ll just understand that when there is an epidemic of some sort, that they realize how much goes into having to deal with that, and how many individuals have to be involved in the process and how it’s really a collaborative effort, and to really think about problem solving.”

Starting by creating a three-dimensional model of the Ebola virus, the class is addressing the “what if” scenario of a viral outbreak in the Huntington community. The students are also breaking out into six teams to each form an emergency plan to outline what steps they would take to contain it and treat those affected. As freshman student Luke Bangma explains, dealing with a virus can be a daunting task.

“What interested me most about the project was the factors of epidemics and how Ebola can spread to so many people,” he says. “For every person who has it, it’s almost two-fold. One person can affect two people, then four, then eight and spirals out of control, so we’re going to have to know the infection rate of the virus, so we know how many people to quarantine and keep the virus under control.”

Students learn how to calculate the incubation periods of viruses – anywhere from two to 21 days – to determine how many people will be affected by a virus. Bangma, who hopes to have a career as a biochemical engineer, says if such an outbreak hit Huntington, the first task will be to contact other areas to determine if they are also experiencing an epidemic.

Freshman Angelle Fisher says having an emergency plan in place can address multiple issues should a virus attack a community.

“We were first thinking about how to make everyone happy, how to make sure everything stays contained and make sure that everyone is separated, but together at the same time,” she explains. “We were thinking more like a big building or a factory or school, and dividing it up for people with families to be on the ‘healthy’ side.”

In Fisher’s plan, those on the “sick” side of the building would be placed according to how ill they are, with a glass divider telephone system they can use to communicate with their “healthy” relatives, and a dual-door decontamination system used to pass medicine, food and other materials to the “sick” side.

“I’m fascinated with how fast the viruses spread, and how major it can get in a matter of just days or hours,” she says. “As horrible as it sounds, I’m actually more interested in the sick people and how it affects them, like noticing signs and stuff like that. You can either have the flu or you could have some serious, deadly virus, but you don’t know that until you start getting symptoms … I think the time period and just really figuring it out intrigues me.”

The “Hot Zone” BioLit unit will continue for roughly two more weeks. Noffsinger says a professor from Northeastern University in Massachusetts who is an expert on Ebola and infectious diseases will visit with the class via Skype. At the end of the unit, the six teams will present their emergency plans to a panel comprised of local healthcare professionals and public officials.