U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Dot gov

The .gov means it’s official.
Federal government websites often end in .gov or .mil. Before sharing sensitive information, make sure you’re on a federal government site.


The site is secure.
The https:// ensures that you are connecting to the official website and that any information you provide is encrypted and transmitted securely.

Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

October 2020

NIEHS pandemic vulnerability tool a hit in Wake County school

New lesson plans enhance students' critical thinking skills by encouraging them to assess various COVID-19 risk factors.

Last spring, a team of researchers from NIEHS, North Carolina State University, and Texas A&M University created the Pandemic Vulnerability Index(https://covid19pvi.niehs.nih.gov/) (PVI) dashboard. Easy-to-understand, color-coded pie charts depict risk profiles for each United States county. The tool combines transmission data with information on socioeconomic and health care factors, and it is continuously updated.

Huei-Chen Lee, Ph.D., K-12 science education program manager in the NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity, saw it as a unique teaching tool.

“A lot of teachers — English, civilizations and culture, and environmental science teachers — were looking for something like this,” she said. “They wanted real-world data that could be used for analysis in their disciplines.”

Huei-Chen Lee, Ph.D. “Professional development is more effective if we work with teachers on what they need,” said Lee. “They are thrilled to have our help.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

With support from Tom Randall, Ph.D., from the NIEHS Integrative Bioinformatics Support Group, and Kat McCann, Ph.D., from the institute’s Epigenetics and Stem Cell Biology Laboratory, Lee started work on four lesson plans. The first was an overview of the PVI dashboard, followed by another lesson plan designed to analyze the demographic and socio-behavioral contributions to COVID-19 risk revealed by the data.

Lesson plan one asked students to choose a county and to examine what demographic and risk factors contribute to overall COVID-19 risk.

“We want them to look for strengths and weaknesses — does anything stand out to make the PVI high or low?” said Lee.

The second lesson plan builds on their knowledge of the dashboard to delve into the social and environmental factors — race, income, education, underlying medical conditions, neighborhood location, etc. — that influence COVID-19 vulnerability.

“Students can write a concluding paragraph to demonstrate their understanding and practice science communications skills,” Lee said. “English teachers like that.” Lesson plans three and four will be available soon, she added. More information about the PVI curriculum is available.

Classroom beta testing

Grace Jackson “I’ve enjoyed our partnership with NIEHS over the past few years by bringing in speakers and visiting the campus,” said Jackson. (Photo courtesy of Grace Jackson)

Grace Jackson is the English department chair and an art history teacher at Enloe Magnet High School Gifted & Talented/International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme in Wake County, North Carolina. She met Lee at the nonprofit WakeEd Partnership’s SummerSTEM program, which connects teachers with professionals in industry and research.

“I thought Dr. Lee’s lesson plans would be powerful tools,” Jackson said. “They’re an opportunity to explore science, social studies, and language expression without promoting a viewpoint.”

Jackson has used it with her ninth-grade civilizations and culture class, and she plans to use it in her eleventh-grade class, too.

Works well with remote teaching

According to Jackson, the PVI lesson plans are well suited for remote teaching.

“Our focus is on the PVI,” she said. “There is an emotional distance that allows them to step outside of their peer group and examine the PVI on their own.”

PVI scorecard example for St. Francis County, AR A PVI scorecard example for St. Francis County, Arkansas. Each wedge represents a different known indicator of vulnerability, such as age. The bigger the wedge, the more that indicator contributes to overall COVID-19 risk. (Image courtesy of NIEHS)

Lee and Jackson have developed a close working relationship.

“Dr. Lee acts like I’m doing something for her, but I’m really just grateful to have someone hand me these awesome lessons and let me use them,” said Jackson. “It’s a gift. I totally want to be the one who says, ‘This works.’”

“It’s a collaboration,” said Lee. “Ultimately, we want to present it to high school department chairs, and then to the district level. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for quite a while.”

Expert input

Part of that collaboration is the review process. Alison Motsinger-Reif, Ph.D., head of the NIEHS Biostatistics and Computational Biology Branch (BCBB), and John House, Ph.D., a BCBB staff scientist, were part of the team that developed the COVID-19 PVI dashboard. Together, they reviewed the lesson plans and will be involved in future activities, such as co-teaching.

“These lesson plans emphasize the ability to synthesize information, think critically, and understand how mathematical concepts drive data analysis,” said House. “It makes for better health-related decision-making.”

“This curriculum provides students with a project that is interesting and relevant to them, but which they might be anxious about,” said Jackson. “It indirectly addresses social and emotional learning in a very objective way. It’s the best thing ever.”

(John Yewell is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

Back To Top