Students love to solve problems, and sometimes the simplest of activities can create excitement about an entire unit. In sixth grade, we study infectious diseases and finding an interesting way to introduce the topic without scaring them about deadly diseases has been challenging for me. However, we've created a disease detective activity that involves the whole sixth grade class, and it most definitely gets students excited about the upcoming unit.
The activity begins with a short introduction about the difference between infectious diseases vs. genetic diseases. Then students are brought together and each student obtains a clear plastic cup containing an unknown clear liquid. We ask the students to simultaneously exchange liquid using a dropper with another student to simulate having direct contact with another person. We complete this for three round while the students carefully collect information about the order and person with whom they exchanged. When the activity is complete we announce that unbeknownst to them, one student was infected with the deadly virus. In reality, one cup contained a highly basic solution. As that student exchanges the liquids with other students, they are altering the pH of their victim's solutions. In dramatic fashion, we add "virus detector" (which in reality is simply phenolphthalein--a pH indicator) that makes their solutions turn bright pink to reveal if they've been infected.
The fun part comes in as students enter their data into the shared class data spreadsheet and try use logic to determine who was patient zero. Below is a sampling of our class data:
This data generates lots of great discussion as well as a great introduction to epidemiology and infectious diseases. I am always impressed at the level of thinking that many of these sixth graders do to solve this problem, and it definitely gets them excited to learn more about infectious diseases!