Monday, November 17, 2014

Ebola Math

Like many others, I've been intently following the recent news stories about Ebola: the outbreak in West Africa, the cases in the U.S., as well as the ongoing reports about the research in the scientific community regarding treatment and a future vaccine. This media attention provides teachers a unique opportunity to discuss relevant course content with a current-event context. Students, no doubt, will be interested in learning about it from an academic perspective. The topic lends itself nicely to many approachable topics in high school math, statistics, biology, health, and social studies classes. It also can be a great way to introduce students to some basics of epidemiology, virology, medical ethics, and biostatistics.

Here are some great resources available for teachers and students who wish to use Ebola and infectious diseases as a context for learning.

1. Vax! -- A game about epidemic prevention designed by doctoral students in the Salthé Group at Penn State University. This game, based on network theory, is a simplified version of epidemic modeling and prevention. Very addictive. Herd immunity exploration for measles and influenza.

2. Columbia Prediction of Infectious Diseases -- CPID from Columbia University has compiled up-to-date Ebola data for Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone (as well as by province) from the World Health Organization and included three interactive predictive models for infection and mortality numbers: an optimized scenario, a no-change scenario, and a degraded scenario. Data is conveniently organized in tabular form. Models and maps for influenza incidence as well.

3. "Exponential Outbreaks: The Mathematics of Epidemics" -- Lesson plan from friend and colleague Patrick Honner via the NY Times Learning Network. In this activity, students use Desmos as a way to do some basic exponential modeling for the spread of infectious diseases such as Ebola. Related support materials, extension ideas, and Common Core standards included.

4. Young Epidemiology Scholars -- Although the final YES competition was held in 2011, the teaching units for the program are still available online and nicely alphabetized by title and discipline. Also available: epidemiology glossary, useful links, and past newsletters from the YES program.

5. Science/AAAS Special Collection: The Ebola Epidemic -- Given the current outbreak, Science Magazine has made all related articles available for free. Their special collection page on their site include links to peer-reviewed articles, news, statistics, and relevant information. Many of the research reports are great resources for discussions about genetic variability, experimental design, analysis techniques, and statistical significance.

6. Epidemic Game -- This game from Grinnell College has players use data to determine how to best treat an outbreak within a local school community. To win the game, players must stop the spread of the epidemic as well as keep costs relatively low. Requires no prior knowledge or information. Uses notions of proportions, medical ethics, conditional probability, and using data to make decisions. Player data can be saved as well as downloaded. There are future plans to have worksheets and related activities.

7. "How mathematicians are aiding fight against epidemics like Ebola" from The Conversation (Oct. 24, 2014) -- Article from mathematical biologist on the role of mathematical modeling in the fight against Ebola.

8. "Emerging Disease Dynamics: The Case of Ebola" from SIAM News (Nov. 3, 2014) -- A more mathematically in-depth article about the use of math for data-driven modeling of the transmission of Ebola, including a discussion about the history of math-based epidemic modeling. 

A big thanks to Dr. Angela Rasmussen, whose recent publication in Science "Host genetic diversity enables Ebola hemorrhagic fever pathogenesis and resistance" is available via the link above, for her feedback and suggestions.

Have any other good resources relating to Ebola that might be useful in the classroom? Let me know.

(Screenshot of some predictive models from Columbia University's CPID website.)


  1. Here are some data sets to use in Stats w/ exponential regression problems as well. All data sets are in Desmos format .