My Best Lesson - Hunting down clues in a viral detective story

Every other week, it seems, the media warns us of a new imminent threat to our lives. Criminals, terrorists and overseas dictators get the most coverage, but from time to time we read about a superbug that threatens to spread and cause mass casualties - Ebola is the most recent example. But although these diseases are serious, far more people are hospitalised - and even die - from common diseases such as influenza.

In one lesson I teach, students learn about common and not-so-common viral diseases by reading a description of a patient's symptoms and then diagnosing them. The pupils take the role of a doctor, studying a patient's signs of illness, recent activity and previous medical history in order to make a diagnosis.

Students receive a packet containing 13 short descriptions of unnamed diseases. Each description includes relevant information on activities that might expose a patient to the infection, along with a list of symptoms and the likely long-term prognosis.

The children also receive a grid listing the different viral diseases down the left-hand side. Along the top are a variety of common transmission methods, specific symptoms, prognoses and locations where a disease is prevalent. For each virus, the applicable characteristics are marked with a checked box on the grid. No two diseases have the same combination of checked boxes.

Students use a process of elimination to narrow down their diagnosis to the right viral disease. They then record the disease and their reasons for selecting it as the cause of the patient's condition.

I generally ask students to work in groups as this helps them to really get stuck into the activity. The lesson essentially requires them to solve a series of mysteries and, since everybody has been sick at one time or another, all students can understand the relevance to their own health.

Seth Robey is a science teacher in Illinois, US

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