September 2016 – Vol. 29 No. 1

Polio As a Case Study in Science Ethics

Posted: Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

by Alan Colburn

Imagine for a moment the Ebola virus came to the United States. How do you think people would react? But now imagine scientists had developed a vaccine which they believed would be moderately effective at protecting people from the disease. Now how do you think people would react?

The situation is hypothetical, but the country confronted a similar situation in the 1950s when faced with polio – and a potential vaccine protecting against its spread.

Anyone alive in the 50’s remembers polio and the terror people felt at the possibility they or their children could catch the disease, which was also called infantile paralysis. Places people congregated, like swimming pools, theaters, and even churches, closed during the summer “polio season.” The March of Dimes was created to help fund a cure – ten cents at a time.

The payoff ultimately came when researchers like Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin developed vaccines that would prevent the disease from spreading, if they worked. Like all things scientific, first they needed to be tested. That essentially meant injecting a child, since children were the main victims, with a dead or weakened version of the dreaded polio virus. Today’s analogy would be injecting people with a dead or weakened version of the Ebola virus.

Testing vaccines against diseases such as polio or Ebola raises a panoply of ethical questions:

– Is it ethical to test a vaccine on primates if the only alternative is to do the research on human populations?

– Is it ethical to experiment on vulnerable populations (like children), if they are the group most susceptible to the illness?

– If you had a voice in how limited funds were to be spent, would you encourage rushing something moderately good to market, or use the money to invest in a better solution that would take longer?

– When should large-scale human trials of a vaccine begin, if people are dying and the vaccine might save lives?

For the K-12 science teacher interested in using and applying science practices, perhaps the most relevant questions are about the ethics of biomedical research (including vaccine testing) with placebo control groups. To be able to think about these issues in an informed way, teachers, students, and our entire populace, needs to understand something about different types of experimental designs and the factors researchers must consider when designing valid and reliable experiments. As K-12 science teachers you can help students understand the essential background information and the kinds of questions everyone needs to ask to help us make informed choices. This kind of practical value, in fact, was one of (several) factors considered by NGSS’s creators when deciding what content to include in the new standards.

With something as potentially lifesaving as a polio (or Ebola) vaccine, for example, pundits might make the case everyone should get the medicine. Why test with placebos? Why not experiment with the vaccine, see how many people in the test group were sickened by polio, and just compare the results with those seen during past summers?

The problem with this alternative experimental procedure was that the incidence of polio varied from one year to the next. No one knew why this was, and no one knew what the incidence was “supposed” to be when Salk’s vaccine was being tested. Researchers argued the only way the vaccine could be “fairly” tested would be by comparing its effectiveness against an untreated control group.

Biomedical researchers are confronted with the same dilemmas today. If your child was sick, and an experimental medicine might help, would you want your child to be part of a control group receiving a placebo?

In the case of the polio vaccine, the disease incidence in normal human populations was small enough that a statistically significant test would need to involve sample sizes involving hundreds of thousands of children. The test would need to be double blind, meaning that neither the clinician nor the subjects know who is receiving the vaccine and who the placebo. Assuming the vaccine was safe and effective, children in control groups receiving placebos continued to lack protection against the disease and were essentially being denied a potentially lifesaving treatment.

Ethical dilemmas, by definition, are mutually exclusive options, none of which appears to be completely satisfactory. Critical thinkers should recognize this, and be able to cogently explain the multiple sides of these often controversial issues. As science teachers we can help our students achieve these goals, while providing them with the scientific literacy we all need to make informed decisions, e.g., understanding what “statistical significance” and “double blind testing” means, as well as introducing concepts of antibodies and the immune response.

That said, what happened with the polio vaccine? It’s a rather amazing story. Testing the vaccine was (and is) the largest experiment ever undertaken, involving more than 500,000 research subjects. David Olshinsky tells it well in his Pulitzer Prize winning book Polio: An American Story. Or, if you prefer, The Polio Crusade, an episode of PBS’s American Experience TV series closely follows Olshinsky’s story. It’s available online.

For assistance in thinking through lessons on ethics, The Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Research, sponsored through the National Academies, is a good place to start. The site has a section devoted to ethics in the science classroom, which in turn has information about creating lessons.

Alan Colburn is a professor of science education at California State University, Long Beach, and is a member of CSTA.

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From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy:

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California Science Assessment Update

Posted: Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

by Jessica Sawko

In June 2016 California submitted a waiver application to discontinue using the old CST (based on 1998 standards) and conduct two years of pilot and field tests (in spring 2017 and 2018, respectively) of the new science assessment designed to support our state’s current science standards (California Next Generation Science Standards (CA-NGSS) adopted in 2013). The waiver was requested because no student scores will be provided as a part of the pilot and field tests. The CDE received a response from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) on September 30, 2016, which provides the CDE the opportunity to resubmit a revised waiver request within 60 days. The CDE will be revising the waiver request and resubmitting as ED suggested.

At its October 2016 North/South Assessment meetings CDE confirmed that there will be no administration of the old CST in the spring of 2017. (An archive of the meeting is available at Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Some ways to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in your classroom

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

by Carol Peterson

1) To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Google has put together a collection of virtual tours combining 360-degree video, panoramic photos and expert narration. It’s called “The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks” and is accessible right from the browser. You can choose from one of five different locales, including the Kenai Fjords in Alaska and Bryce Canyon in Utah, and get a guided “tour” from a local park ranger. Each one has a few virtual vistas to explore, with documentary-style voiceovers and extra media hidden behind clickable thumbnails. Ideas are included for use in classrooms. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

2016 Award Recipients – Join CSTA in Honoring Their Accomplishments

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

CSTA is pleased to announce the winners of the 2016 CSTA Awards for Distinguished Contributions, Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, 2014 and 2015 PAEMST-Science recipients from California, and the 2016 California PAEMST Finalists. The following individuals and organizations will be honored during the 2016 California Science Education Conference  on October 21- 23 in Palm Springs. This year’s group of awardees are truly outstanding. Please join us in congratulating them!

Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award

John Keller

John Keller

The Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award honors an individual who has made a significant contribution to science education in the state and who, through years of leadership and service, has truly made a positive impact on the quality of science teaching. This year’s recipient is John Keller, Ph.D. Dr. Keller is Associate Professor, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Co-Director, Center for Engineering, Science, and Mathematics Education, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. In her letter of recommendation, SDSU science education faculty and former CSTA board member Donna Ross wrote: “He brings people together who share the desire to make a difference in the development and implementation of programs for science teaching. Examples of these projects include the Math and Science Teaching Initiative (MSTI), Noyce Scholars Program, Western Regional Noyce Initiative, and the Science Teacher and Researcher (STAR) program.” Through his work, he has had a dramatic impact on science teacher education, both preservice and in-service, in California, the region, and the country. He developed and implemented the STEM Teacher and Researcher Program which aims to produce excellent K-12 STEM teachers by providing aspiring teachers with opportunities to do authentic research while helping them translate their research experience into classroom practice. SFSU faculty member Larry Horvath said it best in his letter:“John Keller exemplifies the best aspects of a scientist, science educator, and mentor. His contributions to science education in the state of California are varied, significant, and I am sure will continue well into the future.” Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

NGSS: Making Your Life Easier

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Peter A’hearn

Wait… What?

NGSS is a big shift. Teachers need to learn new content, figure out how this whole engineering thing relates to science, and develop new unit and lesson plans. How could NGSS possibly make life easier?

The idea that NGSS could make our lives easier came to me during the California State NGSS Rollout #1 Classroom Example lesson on chromatography. I have since done this lesson with high school chemistry students and it made me think back to having my own students do chromatography. I spent lots of time preparing to make sure the experiment went well and achieved the “correct” result. I pre-prepared the solutions and organized and prepped the materials. I re-wrote and re-wrote again the procedure so there was no way a kid could get it wrong. I spent 20 minutes before the lab modeling all of the steps in class, so there was no way to do it wrong. Except that it turns out there were many. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Celestial Highlights, September 2016

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graph of evening planet setting times by Dr. Jeffrey L. Hunt 

Our evening twilight chart for September, depicting the sky about 40 minutes after sunset from SoCal, shows brilliant Venus remaining low, creeping from W to WSW and gaining a little altitude as the month progresses. Its close encounter within 2.5° N of Spica on Sept. 18 is best seen with binoculars to catch the star low in bright twilight. The brightest stars in the evening sky are golden Arcturus descending in the west, and blue-white Vega passing just north of overhead. Look for Altair and Deneb completing the Summer Triangle with Vega. The triangle of Mars-Saturn-Antares expands as Mars seems to hold nearly stationary in SSW as the month progresses, while Saturn and Antares slink off to the SW. Learn More…

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.