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Operation Outbreak: Catching this virus may save your life

How could your school facilitate an experiential STEM activity and play a role in cutting edge research? Operation Outbreak or “O2” will put students at the forefront of containing an infectious disease outbreak and simultaneously aid researchers in determining how well we respond to a real-life pandemic. Dr Todd Brown led a breakout session at the 2019 IB Global Conference in New Orleans and he invited schools around the world to join him in this incredible project. To learn how to run a simulation at your school or support the project, please contact the O2 team.

By Dr Todd Brown

As a civics teacher at Sarasota Military Academy Prep school, I wanted to give students opportunities to meet experts and gain knowledge through hands-on activities. Two projects collided to create Operation Outbreak or O2 and with the aid of technology that every student has in their pocket, it has grown into a module to teach middle school students the mechanisms for outbreak response and containment from the perspective of public health and governance. I’m writing about this here because with the help of Pardis Sabeti, a genetics professor at Harvard University, and Andres Colubri, a computational researcher in Pardis’ lab, the module will soon be available to any school with an interest.

So, how does it work? Operation Outbreak (O2) is an innovative platform for STEM education on infectious diseases and outbreak preparedness created by our school and the Sabeti Lab at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. This platform integrates an academic unit covering relevant science and humanities subjects with a culminating “outbreak simulation” experiential learning activity. This activity replicates a real-world outbreak scenario and guides hundreds of students on how to respond through a coordinated effort and use of technology, teaching them biology and public health in the process.

This project grew out of something much bigger, the Inspire Project. Over many years, I worked to connect my students with mentors to increase civic and scientific engagement. Inspire is broken into three pathways (earth, equality, and health), and the mentor speakers addressed each topic from their own experience. I invited prominent individuals to join virtual Socratic seminars (question and answer discussion) led by my students. By simply asking “will you speak with some of my kids?” I managed to connect with a number of incredible people. One of these mentor speakers was Pardis Sabeti. That conversation led us to run an outbreak simulation and partnership to create O2. You can read more about the O2 story in this opinion piece published in Wired.

If you would like to explore the O2 module and simulation at your institution, contact Dr Todd Brown through the O2 Project website. 

The simulation is a fantastic event to watch unfold. The students are heavily engaged and really ‘become’ the role they have taken.  A high level of conflict resolution and communication emerges and really tests the skill sets of the students.  There is one quote I wrote down from a student that sums up the immersive quality of the simulation:

“This is the most real thing in school that I have ever done … we’ve had simulations before, but they have been ‘dumbed down.’ This is real. you are actually working against the clock, and the pathogen is spreading, you have to find out what it is and why it’s spreading.”

We are currently working on making O2 accessible to anyone around the world interested in organizing their own outbreak simulations and to adapt the learning materials we prepared over the years.  The O2 app is freely available on the iOS and Android app stores, but to use it, we’re asking schools to contact us to work together to determine the parameters of the outbreak (number of participants, duration and others). We want to make sure you create the best parameters for a successful experiential learning activity. Once this is done, you only need to distribute a unique code to all the participants of the outbreak, which they will enter into the O2 app to enter your “outbreak campaign.”

Most importantly, we are about to submit an application for renewed funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the U.S. If you’re excited about this idea, please contact me directly to offer a letter of support that we can include in our application.  Schools that help us work to submit a successful bid for this large grant will be invited to join the first schools in the world to officially join the project.

Dr Todd Brown presented this project at the 2019 IB Global Conference in New Orleans. He is a recipient of the Ignite Education Innovation Award, a U.S. Congressional Teacher of the Year, a nominee for the CNN Heroes award by Harvard University, a first-place finisher for the Henry Ford Innovator Award, and selected as a Sustainable Developmental Goals Ambassador for the United Nations.  He is currently completing a year-long Fellowship with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.