Virtual Epidemics for Promoting Upper Elementary and Middle School Students' Immersion and Inquiry into Pandemic Outbreaks

Virtual Epidemics for Promoting Upper Elementary and Middle School Students' Immersion and Inquiry into Pandemic Outbreaks


This RAPID was submitted in response to the NSF Dear Colleague letter related to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Epidemiologists have long used simulations of epidemics to better understand their complex dynamics.  More recently, simulations have been used as a teaching tool for public health prevention and protection measures.  Research has shown that through virtual simulations students can better understand the underpinnings of disease spread and social interactions.  This project focuses on how virtual epidemics can engage teachers and students (10-14 years old) as participants and epidemiologists to experience and investigate critical aspects of epidemics, including characteristics that highlight vectors of a COVID-19 outbreak.  The project will use an online virtual world called with over 8.4 million registered players (ages 8-16; average age 13; 78% female) which is free of charge and commercial advertisements.  In the Whyville virtual world the project will launch a virtual epidemic called WhyCough.  WhyCough will provide students opportunities to learn about epidemic outbreaks through immersion.  Immersion in the virtual world includes experiencing outbreaks, engaging in prevention, and promoting social action and collecting data about outbreak, using simulators in a virtual CDC, and writing about experiences. Students and teachers will have access to supplemental materials for online discussions and activities. The project activities will provide teachers and students with opportunities for learning about infection, prevention, immunity and social interactions. Additionally, participants will learn about societal reactions to perceived health risks in order to promote a better understanding of infectious diseases on individual and community levels. The goal of the project is to offer a novel approach to learning about infectious disease, utilizing prominent features of virtual worlds that include; persistence, real time, and personal representation.  The virtual world offers massive numbers of players allowing students to experience and investigate a virtual epidemic outbreak.  The project will recruit at least 50 teachers and 1,500 students.  Using a combination of survey and observational methods, the research will provide further insights into the design of large-scale online activities that promote a better understanding of epidemic outbreaks and issues related to individual reactions to those outbreaks. The research questions include: 1. What attributes of virtual virus design and associated activities do students find most engaging?  2. What do teachers find valuable about the virtual epidemic experience for student learning and engagement? What activities and innovations do they implement in their classrooms? 3. What kinds of connections do youth make from their experiences of a virtual epidemic to real life?  The project will make data sets from the study accessible to other researchers and designers interested in understanding patterns of participation in massive communities. Activities proposed for virtual epidemics in Whyville will be  available for adoption by other virtual worlds and networked games. The project will communicate results via multiple channels across a wide range of disciplines and audiences, including researchers, practitioners, and the general public. This project is funded by the Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program, which supports projects that build understandings of practices, program elements, contexts and processes contributing to increasing students' knowledge and interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and information and communication technology (ICT) careers. This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.


Principal Investigator(s): 

Primary Contact: 


Award Number: 



2020 - 2021



University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, PA

Project Work State: 

Project Status: