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5 Ways to Make Learning the Immune System Easy for Students

Sana Shujat
Teaching with Labster
October 26, 2022

The immune system is our protector that keeps us safe by fighting harmful foreign agents like viruses and bacteria. The white blood cells (leukocytes) could be considered warriors, constantly at war against pathogens. The crucial roles immune cells play are regulated by the lymphatic system's organs. We become susceptible to several diseases if either system fails to perform well. 

The immune system is primarily divided into two types: innate and adaptive immune systems. Innate immunity is also known as the first line of defense as it is present from the time of birth, defending us against germs or any damaging pathogen. On the other hand, adaptive immunity, as the name suggests, is the defense system activated after exposure to a pathogen. The cells of adaptive immunity include macrophages, dendritic cells, B cells, stromal cells, and specific epithelial cells. Moreover, Adaptive immunity can be divided into two categories: humoral immunity and cell-mediated immunity. Humoral immunity involves the production of antibodies that circulate in the bloodstream and lymph. Cell-mediated immunity is conferred by T-cell responses and does not involve antibodies.

The topic of immunology has a vast scope with details and complicated concepts that make students feel overwhelmed and confused. Some teachers also experience difficulty in keeping students motivated and hooked. We aim to solve this problem by introducing five effective and practical strategies to make this topic easy and approachable for students. 

virus dna strand

(Image Credit)

What makes the immune system a tricky topic?

Immunology is a vast area of study; hence there is a dedicated branch for studying the immune system in biology. Students often get dazed by the amount and complexity of information associated with this topic.  

1. Its abstract

Seeing is believing - the immune cells work at the cellular level; therefore, students might get bored and uninterested. The continuous battle of immune cells against foreign agents would be more believable for students if they could witness the process. However, some animations and videos help paint a picture and make the topic relatable.

2. It’s content-heavy

The immune system is composed of many cells, tissues, and organs distributed in the body. Each cell tissue has a unique origin, composition, and role, making learning a burdensome experience for some students. The cells of innate and adaptive immune systems are different with dedicated roles. These cells, for instance, adaptive T cells, are further divided into specific cells, including naive, helper, cytotoxic and regulatory T cells. Moreover, the proteins associated with this system further add to the complexity of this subject. 

3. It’s complicated

The cells, organs, proteins, and invading pathogens decide the fate of a fight. Pathogen wins if it is strong enough or components of the immune system fail to work as a team. It shows that learning about the parts of the immune system alone is not enough to understand the science altogether. Instead, we’ll have to learn immune evasion and subversion methods to understand how pathogens may outsmart our immune system. The topic keeps getting complicated as we discuss new avenues and intricacies of immunology. 

5 ways to make the immune system more approachable for students

1. Introduce people behind the science

Storytelling is an interactive way that helps students relate with those who worked hard to discover the phenomenon under discussion. The history of immunology is particularly an exciting story that would inspire students to learn more. 

The last quarter of the 19th century led to two significant discoveries in the world of immunology. Elias Metchnikff' laid the foundation of innate immunity by identifying the phagocytic cells that eat and destroy the pathogen. Around the same time, Emil Behring and Paul Ehrlich identified antibodies fighting against toxic pathogens opening the path for learning about acquired immunity. However, the discovery of the process and details as we know it today couldn’t be crowned to one scientist; instead, it is the result of the collective efforts of many scientists over time. 

Ilya Mechnikov switched his scientific interests from zoology to pathology, becoming one of the earliest immunologists. He separated macrophages from microphages (which we now call neutrophils). Ehrlich is most known for his fundamental study of the immune system and for inspiring thoughts about how it operates. Ehrlich identified mast cells in his MD thesis, which we now know are essential effectors of allergies.

Ehrlich and Metchnikoff shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1908 "in appreciation of their work on immunity." Bordet was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1919 "for his discoveries relative to immunity."

2. Familiarize students with basic terminology

Some terms are repeatedly used when discussing the immune system. Students at the high school level might be familiar with a few terms; however, it is a good idea to help them refresh memories by introducing repetitive terminology at the beginning of the lesson. Some of these terms, along with definitions, are as follows:

  • Lymphocytes are also termed white blood cells, the most significant cells in the immune system found in blood and lymph tissues. 

  • Lymphoid tissues are the site of the development of lymphocytes. Primary lymph tissues include bone marrow and thymus.

  • The immunological memory is part of the adaptive immune response that develops to a pathogen that has not previously infected the body. Once established, this immunological memory can be called into action if the same infection occurs again.

  • Allergens are antigens that trigger immune cells to initiate an extensive response, i.e., allergy. 

  • Antibodies are protective proteins produced by the immune system for our safety. 

  • T-cells and B-cells: T lymphocytes are responsible for eliminating body cells that have become infected by pathogens (or that have become pathogenic themselves), unlike B cells that target the pathogen directly.

  • Cytokines are the proteins that regulate the activity and growth of different immune cells. 

  • Phagocytosis is the process by which cells eat and eliminate unnecessary particles.

  • Complement is a repertoire of blood plasma proteins that circulate the body in an inactive state, waiting to be triggered into action by an invading pathogen. 

3. Share interesting facts

Interesting knowledge with real-life examples would make things interesting for students as they'll be able to relate more to the topic. Taking advantage of the following fun facts makes learning about the immune system an exciting experience for students. 

  • Some people are born without an immune system and hence suffer from immune system disease — severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID). These individuals are prone to infections as their body lacks defensive mechanisms. 

  • Poor sleep habits negatively impact our immune system. 

  • The bacteria living inside the human body have befriended our immune system and helped to keep us healthy. 

  • Immune system has a remarkable memory as it always remembers a returning pathogen. This phenomenon helps in the identification of vaccines. 

  • Immune system is not centralized; instead, the organs (tonsils, spleen, lymph nodes, etc.) involved in immunity are spread around the body.

  • The immune system gets weaker with age as the number of white blood cells deteriorates. 

  • The fever is not the indication of a pathogen attack; instead, it signals that the immune system is active and fighting against the disease-causing agent. 

4. Make it stick with wordplay

Strategies like introducing men behind science and sharing fun facts help students understand the scientific concepts. Still, they also need to memorize these aspects. Most students struggle to retain scientific knowledge, especially when it contains difficult terms. Introduce entertaining and memorable mnemonics to your kids to make learning simpler. The following are some examples of wordplay linked to various parts of the immune system:

  • Our immune system is more fond of some white cells and prefers to have them in larger quantities. The fun phrase “Never Let Monkeys Eat Bananas.” would help students remember the ascending order of significance of white blood cells. 

NeverNeutrophils

LetLymphocyte

MonkeysMonocyte

EatEosinophil

BananasBasophil

  • There are four types of T-cells (Helper, Memory, Cytotoxic, Suppressor) and two types of B-cells (Memory cell and Plasma cell). Learn these types using the following story: When bacteria attacks, T-cell says to B: "Help Me Catch Some!" B-cell replies: "My Pleasure!"

  • The function of cells of the immune system is made easy by the following story. The dedicated managers (macrophages) clean up after troopers (neutrophils). The T-cells are assistant managers taking orders from managers (macrophages). 

  • Learn the role of complement proteins using the mnemonic

    • C3a: Activates Acute [inflammation].

    • C3b: Bonds Bacteria [to macrophages--easier digestion].

    • If you wish to know more than just C3:

    • C3a, C4a, and C5a activate acute immunity.

    • C3b and C4b bind bacteria.

5. Use virtual lab simulations

A virtual laboratory simulation is a great way to teach immunology. At Labster, we're dedicated to delivering fully interactive advanced laboratory simulations that utilize gamification elements like storytelling and scoring systems inside an immersive and engaging 3D universe.

Check out Labster's simulations for Introduction to Immunology: Organs and cells of the immune system Virtual Lab. In this simulation, you’ll get a chance to interactively learn about cells and organs involved in your immune system. 

Introduction to Immunology: Organs and cells of the immune system Virtual Lab GIF

Check out another related simulation: Introduction to Immunology: Explore the immune system and save the world! Virtual Lab. In this simulation, you’ll observe the cells and organs of the immune system in full action. Test your knowledge by completing each task and adding to the planet’s immunological understanding. 

Please take a look at the above snippets taken from the Labster simulations or get in touch to find out how you can start using virtual labs with your students.

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