Bird flu, malaria, cholera... Pupils have been asked to imagine the worst and come up with solutions. Jan Trebilcock reports.
If scientists' fears are realised and the avian flu virus mutates, how will we cope with a human flu epidemic? This question has government health chiefs all over the world - and Year 9 of Wycombe High School - racking their collective brains for solutions.
The pupils of the girls' grammar in Buckinghamshire are tackling this enormous real-life problem as part of a project on the geography of disease. It is the brainchild of the Geographical Association in partnership with Durham University, which, with funding from the Wellcome Trust, has developed special "visioning tools" to help the pupils of four schools understand the complex data available and show them trends and patterns.
The girls can investigate, predict and plan how to solve the problem, says Catherine Darnton, deputy head, and gain a perspective on the relevance of their work for the outside world.
Preparations are underway at the school for the four-week period in June when the Year 9s will take on bird flu.
"We will have various scenarios about how we would cope if the virus got into the human population and the measures we could take to prevent its spread," says Hugh Mothersole, their geography teacher. "We won't shy away from questions such as: 'Who would be given a vaccine if there was one - children, the economically active, the elderly?'
"We will use the mathematical modelling tools to simulate how disease is spread, first in an animal population and then in the more complex context of the human population, where things such as air travel can have a big impact.
"And we'll look at models from the US that show that the spread of a disease, taking just two or three days to incubate, will be fast in a big city environment."
Hugh has already trialled some of the ideas with Year 10 and 11 pupils, looking at cholera. "We put them in a scenario as aid workers for Unicef working in Indonesia, which has recently suffered devastating flooding," he says.
Then the more complex issue of malaria was tackled, with students designing posters promoting preventative measures, from draining marshes to using mosquito nets. For the final trial lesson, they put together their own PowerPoint presentation or short film on another tropical disease, bilharzia.
"The girls have responded well," says Hugh. "A lot wanted to stay behind after class to discuss the topics. Some of them have been a bit horrified, but we are ensuring we are taking a positive approach by focusing on finding solutions to the problems.
"It's the first time we will look at such advanced concepts in key stage 3, but presented in the right way, it is accessible and it's going down well."
Teachers and pupils are enthusiastic about the project. "It's exciting and staff from all over the school have been inspired to participate, coming up with creative ideas about how they might get involved," says Catherine.
The science department will study how diseases spread and the role of environmental factors. The English department will investigate how the media reports the spread of an epidemic, and look at the language of disease. Sociology and religious studies lessons will tackle moral considerations, and business studies and politics, questions such as:
"Should developing countries get medicines and vaccines at cost?"
"It's proved a powerful way to get people from all departments talking, leading to interesting collaborations," says Catherine.
Each of the four schools involved has taken a different approach. John Lyon, leader in curriculum innovation at the Geographical Association, says: "St Ivo in Cambridge taught maths and geography in geography classes and then held a World Health Summit day on TB.
"Aston Comprehensive near Sheffield is looking at measles spread and control, including the risks and management of the disease, and Danum Technology College in Doncaster is looking at skin cancer and ways to challenge students' attitudes to risk and protection."
Other schools will be able to share the fruits of the project when the resources and lesson plans developed by all four schools are published on the Geographical Association website at www.geography.org.uk in September.