Infectious disease experts do ‘hands-on’ germ lesson with high schoolers

May 17, 2023
Dr. Michelle Barron, left, shines a special light on a student's hands at Aurora Science & Technology, a unique school located on the Anschutz Medical Campus. Photo courtesy of Aurora Science & Technology.
Dr. Michelle Barron, left, shines a special light on a student’s hands at Aurora Science & Technology, a unique school located on the Anschutz Medical Campus. Photo courtesy of Aurora Science & Technology.

The “germs” showed up as fluorescent green blobs on students’ hands even after many thought they had washed them off.

And so began a “real-world” lesson on how viruses spread.

Ninth graders at Aurora Science & Tech recently got to experience “epidemiology day,” the kind of unique experience students get when their school happens to be located on a medical campus.

Aurora Science & Tech (AST) is one of just six schools in the country that shares space with an academic medical center. The school at 2450 N. Scranton St. is blocks north of UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus.

UCHealth funded a science and innovation lab at the high school, and students have done multiple excursions to the hospital. Medical experts also regularly visit the school, which now includes students in grades 6 through 9 and will continue expanding year by year until AST becomes a full middle and high school.

Germ education

On epidemiology day, ninth graders got to engage with one of Colorado’s top infectious disease experts, Dr. Michelle Barron, who is UCHealth’s senior medical director of infection prevention and control and a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Barron and UCHealth infection preventionist, Katrina Espiritu, brought a special lotion to simulate how germs can spread from person to person. Barron also mapped out an early COVID-19 super spreader event at a 2020 wedding in Maine to show students how quickly a novel virus can spread and how epidemiological detectives track infectious disease outbreaks.

The “glow germ” was particularly popular with students. It doesn’t contain any real germs, but Barron and Espiritu paired students up so they could see how viruses spread. One student would rub on the glow germ, then would shake hands or high-five with their partner.

Barron, Espiritu and teachers then used a special black light to show where germs remained.

“It would fluoresce, and you would see under the light where they had put the lotion all over their hands. Then, for the person who shook hands with them or high-fived, you could see where they had been touched,” Barron said.

UCHealth infection preventionist, Katrina Espiritu shines a black light on a student's hand during a lesson in infectious diseases. Photo courtesy of Aurora Science & Tech.
UCHealth infection preventionist Katrina Espiritu shines a black light on a student’s hand during a lesson in infectious diseases. Photo courtesy of Aurora Science & Tech.

The students also tried rubbing on and washing off the lotion. But few got rid of all of the “contaminants.” Once Barron and Espiritu shined the black light on their hands, the students could see how easy it is to spread infectious particles.

“Some did a great job washing their hands, but their wrists or the beds of their fingernails would be glowing,” Barron said.

One student scratched his nose and realized how quickly he spread the “virus” to his face.

“His nose lit up,” Barron said.

School on medical campus sparks enthusiasm about health care careers 

Students like Uriel Muniz, 16, and Maverick Hamer and Yudany Zavala, both 15, loved the lesson.

“I liked how hands on it was, literally hands on,” said Zavala.

Before becoming a student at Aurora Science & Tech, Zavala never had thought about a career in health care, but now she’s considering becoming a surgeon.

“I would like to work in a hospital someday,” Zavala said. “I found it really interesting after we shook hands to see how much bacteria transferred. It’s pretty obvious that it would. But seeing it is a different thing.

“It’s a little gross but also really interesting. You can see how fast an outbreak becomes so big so fast,” she said.

During other trips to the hospital, she has been engrossed with her surroundings.

“It has brought me closer to pursuing my dreams. I want to be in the medical field,” Zavala said.

Muniz thinks he might want to be an engineer and loves the STEM classes (science, technology, engineering and math) that are central to the school’s curriculum.

He liked how approachable and funny Barron was.

“She made us laugh. She’s not boring,” he said.

Hamer isn’t sure what he’d like to study in college but loves the proximity to the hospital and medical school.

“The opportunity they’re offering us allows us to have experiences and see things in the medical field,” Hamer said.

Partnership between medical expert and educators brings about awareness, opportunities

Katie Boye, AST’s director of STEM and partnerships, said the connections have been excellent.

“It goes both ways. Experts are coming here, and we’re doing excursions. They’re great experiential activities connected to our biomedical science class.”

In addition to the recent “epidemiology day,” students saw how paramedics would respond to an accident. Part of the AST building is under construction, and medical pros simulated a fall from some of the scaffolding.

“Students learned about triage and first aid,” Boye said.

Next year, students will be studying body systems, and during junior year, they’ll get to do campus internships.

Medical experts also have stepped up to help with judging for the school’s science fair.

Dr. Jean Kutner is the chief medical officer for the University of Colorado Hospital and is on the board for AST’s parent organization, DSST Public Schools.

Kutner envisions endless opportunities for students to have unique and unprecedented experiences like watching surgeries and ultimately gaining access to high-paying health care jobs.

“UCHealth is very focused on our community, especially our community here on the Anschutz Medical Campus,” Kutner said during a previous visit to celebrate the opening of an AST lab.

The school is located in one of the most diverse and high-need areas of Aurora. Approximately 70% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and 85% are students of color.

Barron, who grew up in Texas on the U.S. border with Mexico and has Mexican relatives, loved presenting to such a motivated, diverse student body.

“These kids don’t have to be at this school. They apply and choose to go there. So, there’s a level of commitment. You can feel that they’re excited to be there,” Barron said.

“We want all students to have opportunities,” she said. “Exposure to health care may inspire students to become doctors, epidemiologists or to do many other jobs in health care-related fields.”

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Coloradan. She attended Colorado College thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summers in college.

Katie is a dedicated storyteller who loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as an award-winning journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and at an online health policy news site before joining UCHealth in 2017.

Katie and her husband, Cyrus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — have three adult children and love spending time in the Colorado mountains and traveling around the world.