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Science Literacy and History: Comparing Masks from 1918 and Today

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Celia Roskin, a recent graduate of Elon University, wrote this during her work as the Fall 2020 Teaching with Primary Sources Intern in the Young Readers Center at the Library of Congress.

Detail from newspaper advertisement. The Evening Missourian. October 26, 1918.

Teachers are always busy, and 2020 brought the additional challenges of online and distance learning to many teachers. To help teachers engage students with meaningful content, I compiled a set of interdisciplinary learning activities. This post suggests science learning activities to engage students with primary sources from the 1918 influenza pandemic (sometimes called the Spanish flu) in comparison with 2020-2021’s coronavirus pandemic.

Using primary sources in a science setting can engage all students. Making historical connections to current events through a scientific lens both adds historical significance and connects the real world to scientific phenomena.

Detail from article “Gauze Masks Now the Style.” The Colville examiner, November 09, 1918

One strategy that I find effective and easy to use with primary sources asks students to observe, reflect, and question. Give students a primary source such as the article Gauze Masks Now the Style. In this column, there are instructions on how to make a face mask to prevent contracting the flu. Present students with the article and first ask: From the title of the article, what do you think it will be about? After students read this column, ask them: Do you think these masks were as effective as the different types of protective masks people use today? Why?

To find similarities and differences in masks from 1918 to today, ask about the differences in materials. Students may test the effectiveness of their own masks using a simple procedure. Through their own mask, instruct students to blow on an object (paper towel, string, flame) and see if it moves or goes out. They must hold it at least one foot away from their face. Compare this with gauze masks. If gauze is not available for testing, instead direct students to research the characteristics of gauze and speculate on which materials would be more effective.

“‘Flu’ Masks Ready to Check Epidemic. Perrysburg Journal [OH], Oct. 24, 1918
Push students to dig deeper into the scientific literacy of the activity. Ask them:

  • How does a mask relate to scientific literacy?
  • What motivated people in 1918 to wear a mask? What motivates people today?
  • What does this mask tell you about how some diseases are spread?

Asking questions like these will help students come to their own conclusions about the science behind wearing a mask.

It’s crucial for students to understand that science is a subject that is relatable and relevant to many aspects of their lives. By connecting a science activity with both COVID-19 and the 1918 pandemic, a teacher engages students with the past in order to make sense of the present, which then prepares them for the future.

Leave a comment, please, to let us know what connections your students make!


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