Mock outbreak investigation tests students’ teamwork and critical thinking

Students in hazmat suits perform a mock outbreak investigation tests students’ teamwork and critical thinking.
From left to right: Natalie Wong, TJ Fedirko, and Abby Clarke review notes from their patient interview to determine the disease and offer treatment options.
When an outbreak of disease strikes in remote parts of the world, a field response team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) works quickly to identify, investigate, and treat the disease to maintain global health security. In December, while many University of Delaware students were finishing written final exams, the students in Medical, Veterinary, and Forensic Entomology (ENWC267) were testing their own emergency response and critical thinking skills in a mock outbreak and CDC investigation. The first of its kind in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, this experiential final saw students “deployed” to the Amazon rainforest where they explored a laboratory transformed into a mock outbreak zone complete with medical tent, research station, and local farm.  
 student Conor Naughton peers through a microscope
Examining a blood smear under the microscope, student Conor Naughton fills the role of CDC epidemiologist working to identify the cause of the outbreak.
Students split into teams of CDC medics, entomologists, and epidemiologists to interview various actors in an effort to determine the disease, treatment, and best vector control methods. Several current and former Entomology and Wildlife Ecology graduate students volunteered to portray physicians, researchers, farmers and ill patients, and answered student questions on a range of topics including health symptoms, native insects, and recent weather events. After two hours of investigation and deliberation, students collectively presented their findings and correctly attributed the outbreak to yellow fever virus, transmitted by the yellow fever mosquito.
Sam McGonigle, Nick Benton, and Sophie Menos looks at species of insects.
From left to right: Sam McGonigle, Nick Benton, and Sophie Menos work as CDC entomologists, searching insect specimens to identify potential disease vectors.
Led by Entomology and Wildlife Ecology doctoral candidate Ashley Kennedy and Associate Professor of Entomology Charles Bartlett, this imaginative final was modeled after a similar exam designed by renowned medical entomologist Jerome Goddard at Mississippi State University.  As with most finals, it is meant to test students’ ability to synthesize information they’ve learned throughout the course of a semester. However, because each student is assigned a specific CDC role and interviews only actors relevant to that role, this test relies not only on each student’s critical thinking but also their ability to cooperate, share information and present a final team report. Kennedy was excited to introduce this test format to students at the University of Delaware.  “I think that having a hands-on experience where they’re face-to-face with patients and other people impacted by an outbreak was good training,” said Kennedy, “to remind them that these are real diseases that still affect millions of people worldwide and not just a thing of the past.” Medical, Veterinary, and Forensic Entomology will be offered again in Fall 2019.
Two students role play as CDC scientists while an aluna lays on the ground as a pretend patient.
Recent alumna Devan George acts as an injured patient and explains her ailments to the student medics (left to right) Natalie Wong, TJ Fedirko and Abby Clarke.
Article and photos by Lauren Bradford