May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

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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Participate in Chemistry Education Research Study, Earn $500-800 Dollars!

Posted: Tuesday, May 9th, 2017

WestEd, a non-profit educational research agency, has been funded by the US Department of Education to test a new molecular modeling kit, Happy Atoms. Happy Atoms is an interactive chemistry learning experience that consists of a set of physical atoms that connect magnetically to form molecules, and an app that uses image recognition to identify the molecules that you create with the set. WestEd is conducting a study around the effectiveness of using Happy Atoms in the classroom, and we are looking for high school chemistry teachers in California to participate.

As part of the study, teachers will be randomly assigned to either the treatment group (who uses Happy Atoms) or the control group (who uses Happy Atoms at a later date). Teachers in the treatment group will be asked to use the Happy Atoms set in their classrooms for 5 lessons over the course of the fall 2017 semester. Students will complete pre- and post-assessments and surveys around their chemistry content knowledge and beliefs about learning chemistry. WestEd will provide access to all teacher materials, teacher training, and student materials needed to participate.

Participating teachers will receive a stipend of $500-800. You can read more information about the study here:

Please contact Rosanne Luu at or 650.381.6432 if you are interested in participating in this opportunity, or if you have any questions!

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.

2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption Reviewer Application

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

The California Department of Education and State Board of Education are now accepting applications for reviewers for the 2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption. The application deadline is 3:00 pm, July 21, 2017. The application is comprehensive, so don’t wait until the last minute to apply.

On Tuesday, May 9, 2017, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson forwarded this recruitment letter to county and district superintendents and charter school administrators.

Review panel members will evaluate instructional materials for use in kindergarten through grade eight, inclusive, that are aligned with the California Next Generation Science Content Standards for California Public Schools (CA NGSS). 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.

Lessons Learned from the NGSS Early Implementer Districts

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

On March 31, 2017, Achieve released two documents examining some lessons learned from the California K-8 Early Implementation Initiative. The initiative began in August 2014 and was developed by the K-12 Alliance at WestEd, with close collaborative input on its design and objectives from the State Board of Education, the California Department of Education, and Achieve.

Eight (8) traditional school districts and two (2) charter management organizations were selected to participate in the initiative, becoming the first districts in California to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Those districts included Galt Joint Union Elementary, Kings Canyon Joint Unified, Lakeside Union, Oakland Unified, Palm Springs Unified, San Diego Unified, Tracy Joint Unified, Vista Unified, Aspire, and High Tech High.

To more closely examine some of the early successes and challenges experienced by the Early Implementer LEAs, Achieve interviewed nine of the ten participating districts and compiled that information into two resources, focusing primarily on professional learning and instructional materials. 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.

Using Online Simulations to Support the NGSS in Middle School Classrooms

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

by Lesley Gates, Loren Nikkel, and Kambria Eastham

Middle school teachers in Kings Canyon Unified School District (KCUSD), a CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative district, have been diligently working on transitioning to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) integrated model for middle school. This year, the teachers focused on building their own knowledge of the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs). They have been gathering and sharing ideas at monthly collaborative meetings as to how to make sure their students are not just learning about science but that they are actually doing science in their classrooms. Students should be planning and carrying out investigations to gather data for analysis in order to construct explanations. This is best done through hands-on lab experiments. Experimental work is such an important part of the learning of science and education research shows that students learn better and retain more when they are active through inquiry, investigation, and application. A Framework for K-12 Science Education (2011) notes, “…learning about science and engineering involves integration of the knowledge of scientific explanations (i.e., content knowledge) and the practices needed to engage in scientific inquiry and engineering design. Thus the framework seeks to illustrate how knowledge and practice must be intertwined in designing learning experiences in K-12 Science Education” (pg. 11).

Many middle school teachers in KCUSD are facing challenges as they begin implementing these student-driven, inquiry-based NGSS science experiences in their classrooms. First, many of the middle school classrooms at our K-8 school sites are not designed as science labs. Learn More…

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Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the NGSS Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

Celestial Highlights: May – July 2017

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

May Through July 2017 with Web Resources for the Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graphs of planet rising and setting times by Jeffrey L. Hunt.

In spring and summer 2017, Jupiter is the most prominent “star” in the evening sky, and Venus, even brighter, rules the morning. By mid-June, Saturn rises at a convenient evening hour, allowing both giant planets to be viewed well in early evening until Jupiter sinks low in late September. The Moon is always a crescent in its monthly encounters with Venus, but is full whenever it appears near Jupiter or Saturn in the eastern evening sky opposite the Sun. (In 2017, Full Moon is near Jupiter in April, Saturn in June.) At intervals of 27-28 days thereafter, the Moon appears at a progressively earlier phase at each pairing with the outer planet until its final conjunction, with Moon a thin crescent, low in the west at dusk. You’ll see many beautiful events by just following the Moon’s wanderings at dusk and dawn in the three months leading up to the solar eclipse. 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.