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Kids Catch Enthusiasm for Viruses

October 21, 2008 -- By Jody Sanford, College of Letters & Science

College Office

“Is it OK if I stay in from recess so that I can keep working on my project?” How many times do you think a 5th grade teacher hears this question? Well, if the students have just been introduced to the nanoscale world of viruses, it might be more than you think. 

Dr. Brian Bothner, chemistry and biochemistry, regularly leaves the confines of the laboratory to visit schools across the Gallatin Valley. Dr. Bothner has developed a learning module that includes a short movie, pictures of viruses, discussion and model-building of viruses for hands-on learning. Each student uses a foldable paper template to make a 3-D model of a virus particle. The template was designed by Jonathan Hilmer, a graduate student in Bothner’s lab, and represents a human rhino virus, the major cause of the common cold. At the end of the day, the kids get to take a virus home to show their parents. Fortunately, with this virus, the only thing they’ll catch is enthusiasm for learning about the world we live in.

“The goal of our informal education effort is to expose and engage people in the exciting world of viruses,” said Bothner who is a faculty member of the Center for Bio-Inspired Nanomaterials and the Thermal Biology Institute. “Kids in particular are fascinated by viruses.”

In the past two years, Bothner has presented this learning experience to over 500 junior high students, 50 elementary school students and 50 secondary educators. The module has also been part of formal education settings such as the MSU Master of Science in Science Education (MSSE) program, as well as informal settings such as Science Saturdays at the public library. 

“The world in which we live is becoming more technical and scientific all the time. If I can teach people something about viruses, and the world in which they live, then I have been successful,” Bothner said. “But even more importantly, if I can show kids that science, scientists and learning can be fun, now that’s a good day.”

Updated: 04/15/2011