The area is known for its intensive agriculture, recent increases in construction, and poor air quality and has been subject to the effects of
ongoing droughts. The pathogen has frequently been detected in soils
collected in Kern County (Smith, 1940; Lauer et al., 2014; Cooksey
et al., 2017).
To promote awareness of valley fever and enhance understanding of the ongoing epidemic, we propose a multi-focus exercise that includes an inquiry-based portion followed by an
investigatory component. This original exercise will be well suited
for a college-level undergraduate microbiology course but can also
be adapted for an advanced AP high school biology course. The
sections of this multi-focus exercise can be modified to stand-alone lessons. We recommend beginning this exercise with didactic lectures focused on background information regarding the
ecology of Coccidioides, how valley fever can be contracted, symptoms and signs of the disease, and methods for detecting the pathogen, and culminating with a discussion about reasons why more
cases are being observed in recent times. This will build the foundation for the inquiry part of this exercise.
In addition to raising valley fever awareness, students will be
introduced to basic molecular tools to safely detect the pathogen using
techniques with real-world applications. We recommend including
student access to disease incidence data that can be obtained from
the websites of the CDC’s National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance
System (NNDSS; https://wwwn.cdc.gov/nndss/) and from annual
health reports that are released by public health departments. Additionally, students can explore environmental parameters that characterize the habitat of Coccidioides by using the WebSoilSurvey (WSS)
database of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Today’s biology courses rarely include topics relevant to students’
interests. Failing to attract students’ attention leads to a lack of understanding of why acquiring knowledge about certain topics benefits
their education or might even be useful in daily life. Furthermore,
concepts of microbiology are rarely included in a high school biology
course yet are often an important part of a later undergraduate biology
degree (Huppert et al., 2002; Gasper & Gardner, 2013; McKenney
et al., 2016). Student engagement, participation, and learning outcomes can be cultivated by interweaving coursework with applied
topics that connect with students. One example includes valley fever
health risks and prevention. Our exercise proposes using polymerase
chain reaction (PCR) to detect Coccidioides spp. in soil samples collected by students and working with real disease incidence data and
environmental data accessed from publicly available databases. Databases such as NNDSS and WSS are readily accessible. This exercise
is student centered and involves students in all steps (Figure 1).
Many laboratory-based biology curricula are dominated by exercises that rely on outdated techniques that are rarely used by modern
research institutions. This leads to students being ill-prepared for
both the workforce and graduate-level research. Fortunately, an
increasing number of funding opportunities combined with the
availability of affordable, discounted, or second-hand laboratory
equipment has led to better access to modern scientific technology.
Our multi-focus exercise provides students with a deeper under-
Suggested Resources for Learning
standing of an emerging infectious disease. It combines critical-thinking
skills with hands-on research, focusing on discussions, formulation of
hypotheses, and data analysis.
More about Valley Fever
• Valley Fever Center for Excellence ( https://vfce.arizona.edu)
• Valley Fever Epidemic by David and Sharon Filip (ISBN-13:
978-0979869259; https://valleyfeversurvivor.com, http://www.
• CDC ( https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/valleyfever/default.html)
The supplies listed below are sufficient for analyzing 50 soil samples.
• Clean zip-lock bags
• Clean spoon or garden shovel
• Respirator mask (Fisher Scientific, cat. no. 19-168-175) (needed
only when soil is dry)
Figure 1. Flowchart showing the structure of the exercise,
highlighting the different subtopics after project introduction
(white box, inquiry part): soil characterization (light gray boxes,
left), detection of the pathogen in soil samples collected from
diverse types of soils using diagnostic PCR (medium gray
boxes, center), and working with disease incidence data (dark
gray boxes, right) (investigation part).