Support quality local journalism. Become a subscriber.

Didn't get a chance to finish your story? Purchase a day pass digital subscription and you'll receive unlimited online access for one day (24 hours). You will have immediate access upon completion of your purchase.

A photo of Wings Park Principal Justin McGuinness camped out behind a fort of disinfectant wipes last week had garnered 84 reactions and seven shares on social media early this week.

It was just the beginning of the huge “project-based learning” curriculum called “Answer for Cancer” which Kara Schmith’s third grade is creating this semester with help from an R.J. McElroy Trust grant.

Schmith and and K-12 instructional coach Kristi Druvenga developed the interdisciplinary curriculum all last semester. In it, students will tie research and communication teachings to science, technology, math and ultimately public health as they learn to think critically about illness prevention.

“I personally had cancer, so that’s where this all started,” Schmith said. She was first diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer in 2016, and it reappeared in 2018. She is continuing periodic treatment to stave it off.

Overall, students will be asked how healthy choices can reduce risk for some illnesses — first cold and flu, then certain types of cancer — and will interview experts and communicate their findings to their schoolmates and the public.

They began by studying germs in the human body and how to prevent cold and flu because — t’is the season. Also, cancer patients have a compromised immune system and need to take extra care to prevent cold and flu.

In an early lesson, students got pretend-infected with powder that glows under black light.

“I had it on my hand, shook some kids’ hand, marked with a sticker whose hand I shook, and told them to go shake other kids’ hands,” Schmith said.

Schmith had some kids wash their hands and relit the black light.

Many had missed under the fingernails and between the fingers. Teachers asked whether they used soap and how long they washed, Druvenga said.

They discovered the hand sanitizer left “lots of glowing parts,” Schmith said.

Students will swab many surfaces on a scavenger hunt to find “the most germy spots in school,” Druvenga said.

They will culture the swabbed germs in petri dishes and identify “germ hot spots.”

As for writing, students are learning to spot whether news is realistic and to cite sources. State standards for informational writing say they must use two forms of research — reliable Internet sources, sure — but also experts or books.

During the cold and flu lesson, student groups will research its prevention, symptoms, treatment and how stomach flu and influenza A and B contrast.

They will interview the school nurse and communicate their scavenger hunt findings to make sure “hot spots” are disinfected regularly.

Research will go into brochures on influenza A and B and prevention tips.

Remember the sanitizing wipes? Students will assemble flu fighter bags for each student at Wings, including these, tissues and hand sanitizer.

“Teachers wipe down their desks everyday,” Druvenga said. “But students [probably] don’t wipe down door handles at home.”

“Hopefully we can look at data on the number of staff and students out, if there’s less people gone because we sent flu fighter bags home, to see if what we do is making a difference or not,” Druvenga said.

“It’ll hopefully make them more aware when out in public: Don’t touch your eyes, or wash your hands first.”

Each group will compile its research into public service announcements to be combined and shared on social media.


For the cancer research piece, students will mimic biomedical researchers, even donning lab coats and goggles. They will be given a collection of lima beans, representing cancer, and lentils, for healthy cells, and will craft their own tools to extract only the cancer cells.

The more cells they remove, the fewer will grow on either side in trial two. If they fail to remove all the cancer cells in trial one, what remains will multiply. If they removed too many healthy cells, fewer will multiply.

At the end of all their trials, if they have successfully removed enough cancer without removing too many healthy cells, they beat cancer, a tie-in with fractions. If not, they can alter their tool and try again.

They will break into cancer research groups: defining cancer and ways to prevent it, causes and treatment history, ways to support survivors and keeping our bodies healthy and avoiding known carcinogens to decrease risk.

Students will brainstorm questions on cancer research as a group and will divvy questions to individuals to focus their research.

Early in the unit, a cancer researcher from Oelwein will speak and take student research questions.

Culminating the cancer unit, all groups will assemble information to make a chemo bag for child cancer patients at the University of Iowa Hospital and will film a short public service announcement to combine and share socially.