The Perfect Menace – PBL & STEM

I created this AWESOME (if I do say so myself) wrap up for my Infectious Diseases module this semester. I wanted to use a PBL activity to tie it all in and I wanted to have a heavy STEM focus for this particular class of 11th/12th graders. We have been studying infectious diseases and the immune system for the entire semester so this project needed to be one that tied in all of these components in an authentic (there’s that word again) way.

Here is what I came up with…

Bio II: PBL  The Perfect Menace

Design the PERFECT virus!! The “perfect” virus will be one that is able to replicate rather quickly with little interference from the Immune System. Your virus should be one that has modifications to help it evade antiviral medicines so that it can survive and thrive in the host. Use your knowledge of antivirals and the physical characteristics of virus and create a virus that will be successful at this avoidance.

Design Phase: 

  • Attachment
  • Entry
  • Replication
  • Exit

What modifications will you make to your virus to make it the Perfect Menace. Antiviral drugs inhibit one of the 4 above strategies for viral destruction of cells. Your job is to design a virus that evades the antiviral drugs and continues causing destruction.

Think about viruses like: Ebola, HIV, Small Pox, Measles, or Influenza – What makes them so deadly? Why don’t drugs work on them very effectively?

Research: Figure out how your virus will be designed based on research of known viruses and their virulence.

Will it have:

Capsule: Naked vs. Enveloped?

Shape: icosahedral vs. rod-like vs. spherical

Genome: RNA vs. DNA

Key Concept:

  • Proteins have specific shapes.
  • Repeating units of the same protein (or a set of proteins) can create a closed symmetric 
shape. Viruses are composed mainly of some genetic material (RNA/DNA) enclosed in a 
protein shell (which is often highly symmetric).
  • Viruses have limited space in their genome, so they use symmetry and multiple copies of 
one or a few types of subunits to create large shells.
  • Viruses inject their genetic material into host cells and hijack their cellular machinery for 
their own propagation.
  • Viral infection can be prevented by blocking the entry of its genetic material into host 

Prototype Phase:

We will be using the MakerSpace in the library to create a prototype of your virus. You will be permitted to use the following:

Pipe Cleaners
Marshmallows and toothpicks
Any other materials you think would be valuable to make a 3-D model of your virus

Computer Generated:

From your prototype, you will then use either Sketch-Up or TinkerCad to create a compter generated 3D model of your Virus

3D Printer:

You will then use our amazing 3D printer to create an actual space-filling model of your Perfect Menace


Finally, you will present your virus to me and a panel of faculty/Staff and explain what makes your virus “perfect”

Additional Materials:

For background, concepts and additional reading:
RCSB PDB website (
Molecule of the Month feature on “Poliovirus and Rhinovirus” and “Bacteriophage phiX174” (handout)
Molecular machinery poster (this can be accessed from

I am aware that not all schools have access to a 3D printer and while I think this is the coolest part of this PBL, the same end result can be achieved by using a 3D software program (like Sketch-Up) so they can still see their designs in a 3-dimensional format.

Here is a photo of some of the finished products. This was the first time that a lot of these kids have used a 3D printer so they were blown away by it. Also, learning the computer program was challenging and frustrating for them, but also very influential.

3D products of student conceptual ideas of what a "perfect menace" would look like
3D products of student conceptual ideas of what a “perfect menace” would look like

If you use this lesson plan/PBL, let me know what you think and how your students liked it.

The New Education Buzzword: Authentic

One of the major arguments I hear for revamping of curriculum is to give the content an “authentic” feel, to make it mean something to the students. I agree that we need to be able to show a connection between the classroom work and “real life” so that the students can see the benefit of plugging into the learning. Authenticity can be tough, especially depending on the subject that you teach.

This is a great post pertaining to authenticity in the classroom… (source: )

Take this quick quiz:

Which of the following projects could be called authentic?

a) Students learn about endangered species in their region and take action to protect them, including a public awareness campaign, habitat restoration field work, and communication with local government officials.

b) Students design and create a calendar with pictures and information about endangered species, which they sell at a pre-winter break community event and donate the money to an environmental organization.

c) Students play the role of scientists who need to make recommendations to an environmental organization about how to protect endangered species in various ecosystems around the world.

To authenticity purists, a project is not really authentic unless it is in the real world, connected directly to the lives of students and real issues their communities. By this standard, choice “a” above certainly qualifies, and maybe “b”, but probably not “c”.

But I think the answer is “d) all of the above.” 

There is a sliding scale of authenticity in PBL, which goes from “Not Authentic” to “Somewhat Authentic” to “Fully Authentic.”

“Not authentic” means the work students do does not resemble the kind of work done in the world outside of school or it is not intended to have an effect on anything apart from an academic purpose. A not-authentic project would involve the kind of assignment students are typically given in school: compose an essay, create a poster or model, write and present a book report, or make a PowerPoint presentation on a topic they’ve researched. Beyond their teacher and maybe their classmates there’s no public audience for students’ work, no one actually uses what they create, and the work they do is not what people do in the real world.

“Somewhat authentic” means students are doing work that simulates what happens in the world outside of school. In a project that is somewhat authentic, students could play a role (as in choice “c” above): scientists, engineers, advisors to the President, or website designers who are placed in a scenario that reflects what might actually occur in the real world. Or students could create products that, although they are not actually going to be used by people in the real world, are the kinds of products people do use.

“Fully authentic” means students are doing work that is real to them—it is authentic to their lives— or the work has a direct impact on or use in the real world. The “real world,” by the way, could still be school, which is a very real place for students. In these projects, like choices “a” and “b” above, students might advocate for a cause; take action to improve their community; perform a service for someone; create a physical artifact to display or distribute, or express their own ideas about a topic in various media.

A project can be authentic in four ways, some of which may be combined in one project:

1. It meets a real need in the world beyond the classroom or the products students create are used by real people.

For example:

  • Students propose designs for a new play area in a nearby park.
  • Students plan and execute an environmental clean-up effort in their community.
  • Students create a website for young people about books they like.
  • Students write a guide and produce podcasts for visitors to historic sites in their county.
  • Students serve as consultants to local businesses, advising them on how to increase sales to young people.
  • Students develop a conflict resolution plan for their school.

2. It focuses on a problem or an issue or topic that is relevant to students’ lives—the more directly, the better—or on a problem or issue that is actually being faced by adults in the world students will soon enter.
For example:

  • Students create multimedia presentations that explore the question, “How do we make and lose friends?”
  • Students learn physics by investigating the question, “Why don’t I fall off my skateboard?”
  • Students form task forces to study possible effects of climate change on their community and recommend actions that could be taken.
  • Students decide whether the U.S. should intervene in a conflict inside another country that is causing a humanitarian crisis.

3. It sets up a scenario or simulation that is realistic, even if it is fictitious.
For example:

  • Students are asked by the Archbishop of Mexico in 1819 to recommend a location for the next mission in California.
  • Students act as architects who need to design a theatre that holds the maximum number of people, given constraints of available land, cost, safety, comfort, etc.
  • Students play the role of United Nations advisors to a country that has just overthrown a dictator and needs advice about how to start a democracy.
  • Students recommend which planet in our solar system ought to be explored by the next space probe as they compete for NASA funding.
  • Students are asked to propose ideas for a new TV reality show that educates viewers about science topics such as evolutionary biology and the geologic history of the earth.

4. It involves tools, tasks, or processes used by adults in real settings and by professionals in the workplace. This criteria for authenticity could apply to any of the above examples of projects.
For example:

  • Students investigating the physics of skateboarding test various surfaces for speed, using the scientific method and tools scientists use.
  • Students exploring the issue of how we make and lose friends conduct surveys, analyze data, record video interviews, and use online editing tools to assemble their presentations.
  • Students acting as U.N advisors to an emerging democracy analyze existing constitutions, write formal reports, and present recommendations to a panel.

I agree that fully authentic projects are often the most powerful and effective ones, because they are so engaging for students and allow them to feel like they can have an impact on their world—so the more of them, the better. But if you can’t get there yet, don’t feel like you’re failing the authenticity test in your projects. Some is still better than none!

I think the above examples would be a great way to start implementing authentic practice for students. I think that sometimes PBL seems so big and scary because it’s still hard to define but any of the above examples would most certainly qualify as a PBL problem and I believe these would be a great way to tie in classroom content with real world emotion. Let me know if you decide to give one a shot and how it goes!!

VCU Announces That It Will Focus More On GPA Than SAT Scores

Strides are being made in education, people! First President Obama’s announcement that he is going to try to make college affordable for everyone and now VCU announces that they are more interested in focusing on the whole child rather than one piece of that child. Hallelujah, what a novel idea. There is a movement in this country to move away from so much testing and focus more intimately on teaching and learning. This is a big step in the right direction for higher education, especially from a school like Virginia Commonwealth University. I truly hope that schools all over this country will start to follow suit.

President Obama’s Plan For Free Community College

I was beyond excited when I heard the announcement that President Obama is proposing for Community College to be free and accessible for all students in the US. What a brilliant idea. College in this country has been increasing the divide between the upper class society and the rest of the country with each year that passes and each tuition increase. It is not uncommon for an undergraduate degree to cost $200,000 for a Liberal Arts degree now and unfortunately, a B.S. is seemingly no more valuable than a high school diploma anymore. Something has to be done, a major overhaul of the higher education system needs to be implemented and maybe this is the step in the right direction. The only part of the proposed plan that I don’t agree with at present is the fact that students only need to maintain a 2.5 GPA to maintain their scholarship. With the rigor of Community College being what it is, I think students should have to maintain at least a 3.0 GPA. A solid B is not too much to ask in exchange for a free education in my opinion.

This proposal will open so many doors for people, regardless of socio-economic status. It would be great for students of all backgrounds to be able to get out of college with little to no debt so they can graduate without that burden on their plates. Who knows, maybe that will increase careers in fields that are more altruistic in nature (teachers, social workers, nurses, etc…) rather than focused solely on salary.

How And Why Should Math Be Taught Using PBL?

Arguably, one of the most challenging subjects to teach using a PBL format has got to be math. Thereby, one of the most important subjects to teach using PBL techniques should also BE math. I hear everyday how much students do not like math, actually, they say they hate it which to me, is sad. If we were out to lunch and the bill comes and someone says, “I have the hardest time figuring out the tip, I was never good at Math, I hate it”, we all laugh it off. However, if someone were to say, “I can’t read this menu, I was never good at Reading, I hate it”, that would not be funny, we would all think that was sad…so what’s the difference? It has become socially acceptable to “hate” math and no one bats an eye. We need to change this perception and I think implementing a strong PBL curriculum will help to begin this change.

The following interview with Telannia Norfar, a member of BIE’s National Faculty and veteran high school math teacher, highlights the importance of utilizing Project Based Learning in math classes. This includes many of the key points made in her January 2012 webinar, Math and PBL.

As a math teacher, what made you turn to Project Based Learning in your own teaching?

In my former careers in journalism, advertising, and telecommunications, I was always presented with new problems on almost a daily basis. I had to solve those problems with very little guidance from my supervisors. Therefore, when I took my first teaching job six years ago, Project Based Learning was a natural fit for me. Project Based Learning was also an expectation in the first school in which I taught. However, on the first day of orientation we were only shown a video on PBL. So, without any formal training, I bought books about PBL. The Buck Institute’s PBL Handbook helped me to learn the design of Project Based Learning as I began to implement it in my own classroom. I really thought a movement in teaching had occurred that moved away from 20th Century education methods to 21st Century methods that promoted critical thinking, collaboration, and communication. It wasn’t until I moved to my second district that I learned this was unfortunately not the case!

Why do many math teachers initially resist integrating Project Based Learning into their classes?

Teachers tend to teach the way in which they were taught. Math teachers are no exception. We show the steps for how to solve a problem and we don’t generally think of adding the more challenging application factor. So we assume having students practicing problems twenty-five times is the only way to learn math. This is a difficult mindset to break. Practice makes perfect is the old adage, but what many math teachers don’t realize is that creating a Project Based Learning environment in a math class doesn’t require students to be “perfect.” Having students solve complex, real-life problems is actually asking students to complete open-ended tasks. These problems may not have one right answer, unlike the practice problems in a textbook. This can be a scary leap for math teachers to take and many students may be hesitant to take this leap as well. However, it is okay if there isn’t a clear answer. You can have parameters around a task, but the open-ended nature of PBL creates an authentic context in which the students will gain a deeper understanding of the mathematical concepts being studied.

How can integrating Project Based Learning into math class create a more authentic framework in which students can learn?

As mathematics instructors, we have a duty to expose students to the reality that math is all around us and in everything we do. Creating an authentic framework in which students truly learn math will help us to save our subject! Few students like math after the 5th grade and we have to start asking why this is the case. Math is the one subject that can change the lives of students. There isn’t just one way of doing things in the real world, so there shouldn’t just be one way of solving a problem. In fact, students can use formulas, but they aren’t really solving a problem. They are just answering a question assigned as homework. Formulas apply in the real world, but not in the nice, clean format provided by homework questions. For instance, the solution for the BP Oil spill in the Gulf came from mathematical concepts. The heart of calculus is about speed and change. How do you calculate the rate of the oil leaking into the ocean? Unfortunately, we don’t present math this way to our students. Maybe, if we did, we would see more students engaged in math and choosing careers that are focused on solving real world problems with which we, as a global society, are faced.

How does utilizing Project Based Learning create an improved context for preparing students to better meet the Common Core standards for Math?

Some of the greatest math students have no concept of the application of math. The Common Core makes the application process concrete and brings it to the forefront of the standards. The Common Core focuses on how math concepts interrelate and how they are applied. The term “modeling” is frequently used in the language of the Common Core. These standards are talking about applying math. Thus, math teachers must start to look into their subject area as more of an in-depth inquiry process, rather better than simply reducing it down to just the formula and practice questions.

How can math be integrated with other subjects in projects?

As a math teacher, I can’t help but use English in my projects. In real life we don’t separate subjects. As a former journalist I used science and history as research for my articles and I had to analyze numbers through data I gathered. Thus, any project you plan is authentic when you don’t see subjects as separated . Math should just naturally occur. In a math class, students should be required to communicate their solution in writing. This should happen in other subjects as well. But, please don’t feel like you have to become a math teacher! Lean on your math colleagues when you feel it is necessary and be proud of yourself when it isn’t!

What do you believe was the most important “take-away” from your webinar?

Being the only teacher or one of just a few teachers in a school to implement PBL can be difficult. You need a community of like-minded teachers with whom you can collaborate. You need support and encouragement. Don’t take this journey alone. Find online communities, such as the BIE Edmodo Community, to start a dialogue with others on PBL best practices and valuable resources. I know I would have been a lot further along in my own implementation of Project Based Learning if I had initially had a community of colleagues for support, rather than just reading books.