• Tue. Feb 7th, 2023



COVID-19 reveals grade school science education flaws

While the COVID-19 pandemic surged last spring, my kindergartner learned how snails use a radula to eat. My second grader studied praying mantises. Our backyard became a snail and praying mantis lookout. After at-home school, we talked about coronavirus, why I suddenly wasn’t working at the student health center, and why daddy was changing clothes when he came home from working at the hospital. I imagined what life would have been like if, in addition to learning about the radula, our kids also learned about the trachea and bronchi of our lungs.

But the California Department of Education Science Curriculum framework doesn’t include human biology in the elementary school science curriculum. Kids in California public schools first learn about their bodies in the context of reproductive and sexual health. These conversations start in fifth grade at the earliest and are primarily part of middle and high school curricula.

Yet, studies have indicated that by age 4, children can learn biological facts found in picture books and apply them to real world examples. Very young children are also capable of understanding the concepts of contagion and healthful behaviors. Moreover, picture books that show how things work can be particularly helpful in supporting adult-child conversations that strengthen science learning.

If a robust human health curriculum in elementary schools had existed 20 years ago, our response to the COVID-19 pandemic would have been more effective because adults that know basic lung function would more likely support effective public health responses to respiratory pandemics.

School-based education about human biology needs to be broader than reproductive health and can be engaging, even profound. When learning about their lungs, kids can learn about air, breath and climate. Creative tools can share the wonder of our bodies: play dough to explore the shape of the human heart, drums to explore the sound-conducting bones of the middle ear. Learning basic human biology can also show kids that we are all made of the same elements organized into exquisite structures and that our genes demonstrate that there is only one human race. “Otherism” diseases like sexism and racism will then not only seem blind but also understood as pathological.

For now, COVID-19 still plagues us. I have replaced last year’s crayon drawing of a snail and praying mantis diagram with new folders. This year, will my kids have computer lab and  human lab? As they learned about a snail’s radula last year, will they also learn about cilia, the beautiful finger — like extensions on lung cells that move microbes out of airways? If not this year, when? Because the technology we carry within us is more wondrous than the technology we teach kids to code on. If we want to create a culture ready to tackle the next pandemic, a citizenry that knows how our bodies function and fail, we can’t delay considering human biology vital elementary curriculum, for our health and for our survival.

Dr. Diana Farid is an assistant professor of medicine at Stanford University and picture book author of “When You Breathe,” (Cameron + Kids), which will be released Sept. 22. 

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