As appearing in | June, 2020 | by 

Going Viral: Biology student creates educational kit about the spread of pathogens

Delaney Worthington, a Spring 2020 graduate from the Colorado State University College of Natural Sciences, had been studying viruses and diseases long before any mention of COVID-19. However, the current pandemic has made the science kit that she began working on two years ago all the more relevant.

“Going Viral: a hands-on look at vaccines, microbes, and the immune system,” is a hands-on, self-guided activity kit that walks middle- and high-school students through a basic understanding of pathogens, diseases and immune responses in the human body. Worthington created the kit in collaboration with the Natural Sciences Education and Outreach Center for use in their STEM Friday program, STEM Kit Lending Library, and  SciTrek summer camp for high school students.

Worthington attended SciTrek when she was in high school.

“SciTrek was a great experience for me to learn that there was more to biology than just going to veterinary school, which was my plan since elementary school,” said Worthington. “I realized there were so many options for me to explore within the field and also got the chance to see how important hands-on science is. The camp helped me realize I wanted to teach science instead.”

In May, Worthington defended her honors thesis on the kit and received second place in CSU’s Celebrate Undergraduate Research and Creativity showcase virtual event.

Hands-on learning goes virtual

“Students are on a path to self-discovery as soon as they open up the kit,” said Worthington. “They’re kind of walking through this on their own and teaching themselves these concepts.”

The kit is meant to be hands-on, but Worthington completed the work on it and defended her thesis virtually. Though her project moved online, the concepts illustrated in the five-section kit are more important now more than ever.

  • The first activity models the spread of a pathogen in an un-vaccinated population.

“That shows students a little bit of what we’re experiencing right now, actually,” she said,  “how quickly a disease can spread.”

  • The next activity helps them understand what a pathogen actually is and its scale as related to small objects, like a human hair.
  • The third activity asks students to sort microbes into different categories, helping them distinguish between bacteria, viruses and “other.” The students get to discover that not all germs are inherently bad, and explore healthy gut bacteria as well as bread yeast.
  • The fourth activity models the immune response to a pathogen, “which is really a very, very complex process,” Worthington explained “Through this hands-on activity students get to learn something which really would be so difficult to teach them otherwise. So that’s one of my favorite activities in the kit, because I think it’s cool that they can basically teach themselves the immune response.”
  • The fifth activity promotes the concept of herd immunity and models the spread of a pathogen through a vaccinated community, showing how vaccines slow the spread of viruses.

“If a large number of people in a population receive a vaccine then it’s going to help protect you and people who can’t get vaccines, such as immunocompromised individuals or the elderly.” she added.

The kit will be put to use in the CSU SciTrek summer camp, once it is feasible to host it again, as well as be available in other venues

“The Going Viral kit will be used by middle- and high-school students throughout Colorado,” said Andrew Warnock, director of the Natural Sciences Education and Outreach Center. “Schools within an hour bus ride will be able to come to a STEM Friday to use the kits. Teachers can also request the kits for a weeklong loan where we cover the costs of shipping.”

The timing of the finalization of the kit is both impeccable and maybe a little late.

“Who would have thought that we would have a pandemic in the middle of the development of a kit on pandemics?” said Warnock. “The timing of this kit is a generation too late for our current situation, but we hope that it will help the next generation learn how viruses work and spread. We also hope that it helps people who are nervous about vaccines.”

Educating, in more ways than one

Worthington graduated this spring with a bachelor’s degree in biology, a concentration in microbiology and immunology, and minors in chemistry and Spanish.

When she was planning for her thesis, she wanted to be sure she researched something that was really important to her that would have lasting impact.

“There is so much misunderstanding about the spread of disease and how our immune system works coming from all over the place – from leadership, from the internet, from everywhere,” Worthington said “I think that these ideas that the kit is talking about are so, so important, maybe even more than when I first created it. I’m really excited to get this into the classroom and start helping people have a deeper understanding of what’s going on.”

Most of her research for the kit focused on how to educate appropriately. The actual science deployed in the kits came directly from her coursework at CSU.

“It’s amazing to be able to take what I have learned in my classes and put it directly back into this kit that CSU will use,” said Worthington.

Jennifer McLean, associate department head for undergraduate education​ in the Department of Microbiology and Worthington’s advisor, helped guide her through the development of the kit, but clarified that “[Delaney] did all of the brain work. I encouraged her to research and implement backwards design in her project. In doing so, she was able to create learning goals and measurable learning outcomes that aligned with the assessments and activities she built into the kit lab book.”

Affinity for teaching

Worthington has been involved in numerous on-campus programs, and has demonstrated her affinity for teaching and sharing knowledge over and over again throughout her four years at the University.

She was a member of the Honors Program, a resident assistant, a community coordinator at Aggie Village, an undergraduate learning assistant for microbiology classes, a teaching assistant for cell biology classes, and worked in a lab in the microbiology department. Worthington also created a mentorship program in the biology department to help support diverse populations. On top of all this, she still managed to find the time to study abroad in Costa Rica during Spring semester 2019.

“My time abroad was such an amazing way to figure out what I wanted to do,” she said. “I was down there, I was doing field research, and I was like, ‘I love being outside but I kind of miss the lab and the control that comes with that.’ So that helped me figure out that I wanted to do lab research and I was more interested in microbiology than I was in ecology.”

Her time in Costa Rica also allowed her to practice Spanish and enjoy another side of her studies. She gained fluency with the language and came home feeling more confident about her goals for the rest of her undergraduate career.

One thing that she has never doubted, however, is her commitment to helping teach others. She will be returning to CSU in the fall as a student in the Master’s Plan B in microbiology and immunology and continuing her virology research in the Ebel Laboratory.

She could see herself as a professor down the road, but anticipates working for the Peace Corps or teaching science in a Spanish-speaking country first. She also plans to spend the coming year working to translate the Going Viral kit into Spanish to help make the information accessible to more students.

“Education is definitely really important to my future and has been a hugely important part of my undergraduate career as well,” Worthington said. “Teaching and sharing knowledge is such an integral part of what I do and is very fulfilling to me.”

“Delaney is brilliant,” said Warnock. “She exudes confidence and is fun to be around. She has a keen intuition for science education and works really well with students. I am confident that Delaney will go on to achieve great things.”

About the Natural Sciences Education and Outreach Center

The NSEOC, part of the College of Natural Sciences, focuses on increasing scientific literacy by making science more accessible and inclusive and ensuring that future and current teachers have access to the best science teaching information available. Learn more about the NSEOC.