Educator Spotlight: Mapping Infectious Disease Trends

Matt Kuehl’s high school biology students investigated the frequency of common biological pathogens. Then they investigated the death rates of several diseases and plotted them on a mega map. Students identified correlations between the frequencies of the diseases and the locations of high death rates.

Matt Kuehl is a 10th-grade science teacher at Grand Rapids High School in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Photo by Shelly Lindstrom

What inspired you to take the topic of infectious diseases, which you teach every year, and rework your approach as part of your National Geographic Educator Certification project?

Often while teaching a traditional lesson plan, science teachers focus on just the biological mechanisms—for example, the process of cellular respiration. However, this type of learning is often difficult for students to apply to real-life scenarios.

One of my goals for my project on pathogens was to look at diseases from a variety of scales, from local to national to global.

I wanted students to understand the global prevalence of different types of diseases, especially those we don’t see often in the U.S. because we are fortunate to have access to good medical care. Just because people aren’t dying from certain communicable diseases in the U.S. doesn’t mean they aren’t threats in other places around the world.

How did you make this project visual, and how did that influence student learning?

We used a National Geographic MapMaker Kit to display a huge map on the wall.

Students crunched disease death rate numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Initially, students were intimidated by the sheer amount of data. However, after they organized the data, wrote it on sticky notes, and placed it on the world map, they saw clear trends in disease death rates. Students asked questions like, “Why are there so many disease deaths in Africa?” They then made connections between the different biological and social factors that influence the rates of communicable diseases.

Educators: Download full lesson plan here.

“Kids forget a lot of things from school, but I hope one memory my students will retain is the image of the giant wall map with all the data they plotted on it,” says Matt. Photo by Matt Kuehl

You mentioned that your project helped make science relevant for your students. What kind of impacts did you notice?

The introduction to this project focused on the basics of specific diseases. Students’ response to this information was typical of many general research lessons; they were engaged but not overly enthusiastic.

However, their curiosity was piqued during the project when we had a whole class discussion after analyzing the pathogen data and placing it on the global map. Instead of memorizing facts, students were actually seeing disease trends around the world. One of the most memorable questions one of my students asked was: “Why are all these sticky notes in one place?” This observation led to an in-depth discussion on why students were seeing certain disease trends on the map.

Our discussion also led some students to question how they, in their own city in northern Minnesota, could potentially help people dying of communicable diseases in other parts of the world. I am still surprised by the amount of interest the project generated. What began as an average research project escalated to riveting discussions about the impact of governments, ecology, and economics on the spread of infectious diseases.

Matt integrated technology by having students use tablets. Photo by Matt Kuehl

What advice do you have for other educators looking to transform a traditional lesson they’ve taught year after year into a more interactive and relevant lesson?

One of my goals, regardless of the lesson plan, is to find things that motivate me as a teacher. Excitement is contagious. When I’m enthusiastic, it’s so much easier to convince students to be excited as well.

I’d recommend other educators begin by finding what really motivates them. Then, they can explore the different ways to teach that beyond a study guide or a PowerPoint presentation. Also, one of the things that was helpful for me was using the resources available through National Geographic.

Do you have a favorite quote that inspires your teaching?

The poem “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver inspires me in three important ways.  First, it reminds me of the importance of observation both as a person and as a teacher. Second, it helps me focus on the important things in life, even when life can be overwhelming. Third, the poem reinforces the importance of teachers as role models, guides, and educators in the lives of students trying to make sense of their own purpose in the world.


This interview has been edited and condensed.

Interested in joining Matt as a National Geographic Certified Educator? Learn more at

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