Emergency Lesson Plans for the Science Teacher

Sometimes the PowerPoint won’t load. Sometimes the teacher left you with no instructions. Sometimes you can just see in the students’ faces that, today, they need a hands-on activity and not another lecture.

In these cases, you may need some Emergency Lesson Plans for the Science Teacher.  Substitute teachers can never have too many ‘backup plans’ and tricks to engage students. The best kind of lesson plan both engages and leaves a lasting impression with a big takeaway. One such lesson is an activity to answer the questions “What is a virus?” and “Is a virus alive?”

Start by asking the class if they know anything about viruses, and write any true things they say on the board, congratulating them for anything they contribute.  For the purposes of this, if they mention computer viruses, say “That is a great example, and we’ll come back to them at the end.”

Now tell the students you’re going to give some of them a virus.  Hand out a piece of paper that reads,

“Make a copy of this note, and do what it tells you to do.”

The students should have several sheets of paper ready for this task.  Either leave a stack on each of the desks at the beginning of class, or you hand him/her some sheets when you hand him/her the note.  As they make copies, other children will read the notes.  When they do, instruct them to follow the instructions they just read (handing them paper, if needed).  Soon, most of the class will be copying the note, and you can stop them to discuss the activity.

“Did the note do anything itself?”

“Is the note actually alive?”

“What would happen if I hadn’t stopped you guys?” The answer is that the infected students would have kept making copies, doing nothing else, until they died.

“What would happen if the note was found by a person who didn’t have any paper or pens? Could it have been copied?”

“What if the note was found by a person who didn’t read English, would it have been copied?”

This is how a virus works, at its simplest level: it doesn’t do anything by itself.  Living cells are constantly making things according to instructions they get from their genes.  A virus tricks the cell into reading its genes and following those instructions, but the virus doesn’t actually DO anything.  And most viruses can only affect certain types of cells, since only those types of cells have the materials to make new virus, and are capable of reading that set of instructions (just like the note-virus had to be found by someone who read English and had paper/pens on hand).

If you need to keep going a little longer, talk about envelopes.  Cells don’t normally just follow any random directions they find floating around, just like you might see this piece of paper on the ground and ignore it.  Because of this, viruses stuff their genes inside an envelope of protein. Imagine you came across an envelope that said “Hey, Katie, read this, it’s important!”  If your name happened to be Katie, you would be much more likely to open the envelope and read what’s inside.  Likewise, the virus has a protein that looks like good stuff to certain cells.  Again, the virus isn’t doing anything, just like the envelope wasn’t doing anything sitting on the ground, but it tricks the living thing into opening it.

You can connect this to computer viruses because they do the same thing.  The virus is normally contained inside a file that the computer thinks is a good thing, so the computer pulls the file in, opens it, and reads the instructions inside.  It then follows those instructions, thinking it’s doing the right thing, but actually causing problems.

For more-advanced students, tell them the line a virologist once said, “to think about viruses correctly, never make a virus the subject of your sentence.”  Instead of saying “the virus moves through the bloodstream,” say, “the bloodstream moves the virus around.”  Instead of “the virus infects the cells and multiplies,” say “the cell mistakenly pulls the virus inside, and then starts making copies of it.”  This is not necessary (even virologists don’t actually talk like this), but it is a nifty trick to remind students that, for all the destruction they can cause, viruses don’t actually do anything themselves.

This is just one example of doing something unexpected with your students to make them think. Please contact us for more resources to help you be the best sub you can be.

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