Students use sticky notes and a kind of "brain mapping" system to determine what questions to ask to help local companies develop an epidemic response plan.

Stephanie Qi was just wiping her hands from a quick rinse in the bathroom sink when Brooke Garbarini accosted her.

“You call that washing your hands?” 11-year-old Brooke yelled. “You have to use soap! Was that hot water? You have to use hot water!”

There was an awkward silence from Stephanie, also 11, then Brooke continued her harangue.

“You have to wash the backs of your hands, between your fingers and your thumbs. Bacteria have a new generation every 20 minutes! You have to use soap to wash off the germs, and keep your hands under the hot water for 20 seconds.”

“And what happens if I don’t?” Stephanie shot back.

“You can get tons of diseases. You can get the flu, swine flu, SARS disease, staph infection, polio and diarrhea. There are millions of germs on your hands.”

Brooke carried on for another minute about the germs on the bathroom door handle, touched on the topic of the incubation of germs, and the threat of mutation caused by overuse of antibacterial soap.

And just in case Stephanie remained skeptical, at that point 12-year-old Shaina Levison and 12-year-old Jesse Zhang stepped out of two nearby stalls and did a little dance and sang a rap song about hand-washing.

Cut! Take five!

The “bathroom hand-washing scene” is just one scene in a movie these precocious youngsters are making to promote public health and educate other students about proper public hygiene.

Nearby, some other equally precocious youngsters are preparing for a presentation they’ll give to some Boulder businesses on coming up with an organizational response plan should an epidemic strike. What mitigation steps can the businesses take? How do they prepare for a worst-case scenario? How do they respond should an epidemic fell large numbers of employees?

The students, all rising seventh and eighth graders in Boulder-area public schools, have spent five weeks soaking up the heady academic atmosphere at a free summer enrichment program at the private Alexander Dawson School in Lafayette. The program – entitled “Epidemic, Past and Present” – ends this week. Sponsored by the Dawson Foundation Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, it brought in 31 high-achieving middle schoolers and immersed them in a challenging curriculum that included virology, disaster preparedness, history and the economic effects of outbreaks.

“Oh my gosh,” said teacher Valerie Keeney, who normally teaches science at The Pinnacle charter school in Federal Heights but who signed on to teach the science component of the epidemic program at Dawson.

“I’ve been teaching stuff I would teach high school sophomores,” she said. “These kids latched onto it immediately. The stuff they’ve come up with is seriously impressive. It blows me away that they’ve just come out of sixth and seventh grade.”

Students work to create a model of a hand for use in a hand-washing display.

While some students were learning about DNA and RNA and the differences in bacteria and viruses in the science group, others focused on math, doing computer modeling of how epidemics spread. A humanities group focused on a study of the history of epidemics throughout the ages.

They also had the chance to talk to some high-powered experts on the subject. Guest speakers included Boulder County health officials, a medical historian from the University of Colorado, and emergency preparedness experts from Exampla Healthcare and the University of Colorado Hospital.

They also spent time with journalist Maryn McKenna, author of Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA, an account of the dangers of drug-resistent staphylococcus.

“I thought she was trying to scare us a lot,” said Shaina Levison, a student at Heritage Middle School in Longmont, of McKenna’s visit. “But people need to be scared because if we’re not, we won’t learn what to do about it.”

Levison is part of the group of students now working to develop a public hygiene campaign. They’re aiming to create material appropriate for second- and third-graders. Among their projects — a movie, which they have written and will film themselves, and a hand-washing display featuring bacteria they’ve grown themselves.

Watch the students rehearse the hand-washing skit and rap song and dance they wrote.

“We’re not telling them what to do,” said Kevin Cloud, executive director of the Dawson Center. “They’ve listened to the pros, and they’ve learned that the best thing you can do is wash your hands. People already do that, but not well. They’re working on ways to present that information.”

Cloud figures that adults, too, can learn something from these super-smart kids. He’s recruited three local companies – a high tech startup, an industry group and a small manufacturer – to be guinea pigs for the students. They will study these businesses, ask them questions and put together customized response plans that the companies could initiate should an epidemic strike.

Students studying the history of epidemics created graphic representations of pandemics down through the ages.

“They’re not just a bunch of kids,” Cloud said. “They can do serious stuff. For the companies, there is no downside to this. If the resulting plan has value to them, that’s great. Or maybe they won’t want to use the document the students develop, but it may start a dialogue within the company.”

Above all, Cloud expects the students who participated in the five-week program to take what they learned back into their home schools come fall. There, they will impact the health of their classrooms by their example.

“One highly motivated student per classroom makes a big difference,” he said.

That’s something the youngsters themselves are certain they will do.

“I think we’ll take this with us wherever we go,” Levison said. “Stuff like how not to spread your diseases to other people. And I never realized before how medicines can hurt you. Did you know if you take medicines for a bug you don’t have, it can mutate?

“And if you’re taking antibiotics, and you don’t finish them all, the bug can become resistant to them,” added Qi. “This weekend, I’m going to the wilderness but I’m going to wash my hands a lot. From now on I’m going to wash my hands 10 times as much as I used to.”

Rebecca Jones can be reached at rjones@ednewscolorado.org.