STEM Connections: Glowing Soldiers and Pharma Bros

Social Studies doesn’t happen in a vacuum; problems from history, politics, economics, and geography can inspire the research that leads to insights and discoveries in science, technology, engineering, and math.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Shiloh, there were so many wounded soldiers that it took days to get them all off the battlefield, during which time they lay in the rain and mud.  And then a strange phenomenon occurred. As The Historical Diaries tells it:

The men who lay beaten, bloody, and dying on the ground began to glow. Well… their wounds began to brightly shine a luminous greenish blue color. What was causing such a strange thing to happen? This is the part that gets even stranger, not only did some of the soldiers gaping wounds glow, but it seemed that these glowing men’s injuries healed much faster and cleaner than the wounds that did not glow.

Because they healed, the radiance was called Angel’s Glow.  The spooky story was dismissed as folklore legend, and the mystery would have to wait almost 140 years to be solved.

Two high school students, William Martin and Jonathan Curtis, visited the site of the battle with Martin’s mother Phyllis, a microbiologist at the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Maryland working with bacteria called Photorhabdus luminescens.  They asked her if the bacterium could have caused the glowing wounds, and she challenged them to find out.  They did, and won a first award in the 2001 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for their research. (To find out their results and how that explains the mystery, read the HD post here. There’s also a good post on Mental Floss about the story.)

And while there are historical mysteries galore, your students don’t have to limit themselves to the past for inspiration.

The astonishingly astronomical cost of pharmaceuticals in the United States has encouraged equally astonishingly greedy behavior.  The poster boy for this is Martin Shkreli, the “pharma bro” who raised the price of an anti-malarial drug called Daraprim more than 5000 per cent in 2015.  His actions inspired a group of high school students in Australia to work on alternative ways to synthesize the drug, and they succeeded last week.  (Shkreli’s response is here.)

Making the connections between humanities, social science, and physical science academic disciplines can make for powerful learning in more ways than one.  But possibly the deepest lesson it teaches is that it empowers students to interact with and alter their environments rather than passively accepting them.

BulbgraphOnOffTo print out a test with mini-lesson answers, choose “practice test,” then the type and number of questions. Arrow to the end, then click “Print/Export.”

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Dr. Annelies Kamran is V.P. for Content and Product Development at WorldView Software, Inc.

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