High school teacher uses K-State Olathe education to boost her students' knowledge about zoonotic diseases

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

OLATHE — Nicole Ioerger, a student in the M.S. in Veterinary Biomedical Science program at K-State's Olathe campus, recently presented her master's defense, "An interdisciplinary One Health case study for high school students."

Ioerger is a teacher in the Animal Health Academy at Olathe North High School. She teaches animal science and wildlife biology to juniors and a zoology course for seniors who are in the academy. The academy is a 4-year, application-based program for Johnson County high school students. Students who are accepted complete hands-on learning about animal health and have the opportunity to earn college credit at Johnson County Community College.

Ioerger's master's project is a case study about Rift Valley Fever designed for her junior and senior students in the academy.

Rift Valley Fever is a highly infectious disease currently isolated to Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The disease is transmitted by mosquitos to food animals, such as cattle, sheep and goats, and wildlife, including the white-tailed deer. The disease is zoonotic, meaning it can jump from infected animals to people, wherein it can cause mild flu-like symptoms or a lethal hemorrhagic fever. A U.S. outbreak would cost an estimated $50 billion in animal losses and trade.

Responding to and controlling Rift Valley Fever requires an approach from numerous academic disciplines and professions in human, animal and environmental health, Ioerger said.

"Rift Valley Fever is a major concern in the U.S. and a very realistic problem that requires a lot of planning about how to respond to and mitigate it should it reach our country," Ioerger said. "So, it made sense to integrate it into my classroom lessons."

Students who have basic knowledge about how diseases function and spread would be given some literature on Rift Valley Fever. Groups of six are then given a scenario about a Rift Valley Fever outbreak in the U.S. and each student is asked to roleplay one of the professions that is responding to the outbreak.

Each group is asked to look at what can be done, the financial cost, how to safeguard the public, what other professions are needed in the process, etc., and tasked with developing a response plan. Groups discuss their top five suggestions about how they would approach and mitigate the disease.

The case study takes about a week to a week-and-a-half to complete.

"It's pretty comprehensive for high school students," Ioerger said. "The hope is that they understand why it's important to study and plan for these diseases."

She also said that having case studies, such as the Rift Valley Fever one, are important to the One Health dialog and encouraging young minds to pursue a career in a One Health field.

"We need researchers to be able to address complex diseases, such as Rift Valley Fever and COVID-19, with a One Health approach," Ioerger said. "To get researchers who are capable of that, we need educators to teach them."

She plans to integrate this case study into her spring 2021 wildlife biology class.

Ioerger, who has been teaching at Olathe North since 2012, decided to earn the M.S. in Veterinary Biomedical Science degree so that she could be an even better teacher.

"I really wanted to increase my basic scientific knowledge so I could pass it along to my students," Ioerger said. "They benefit when they're getting updated knowledge and learning from a curriculum that teaches more up-to-date information."

She began her journey at K-State's Olathe campus in fall 2017.

Jackie Spears, Ph.D., the campus' interim dean and CEO, was Ioerger's major professor for her first master's degree, at which time she also earned her teaching credentials. Paige Adams, Ph.D., served as Ioerger's major professor for the veterinary biomedical science degree program.

Ioerger has worked with members of the Olathe campus throughout its operations. She encourages high school students to enroll in the One Health online summer course, attend and submit a research poster to the Kansas City One Health Day event, or volunteer as a helper for the middle school STEM summer camps or All-University Open House.