Operation Outbreak: Learning Built for Real Life

Practice   02 September 2020
By Andrew Williams, Education Reimagined


By grounding young people’s knowledge in real life events and real life possibilities, they gain a greater awareness of their surroundings and much more.

Andrew Williams
Writer and Communications Manager, Education Reimagined

An uneasy buzz fills the air as throngs of reporters wait patiently for the CDC Director to appear. Governors, mayors, and the President have been briefed, and official nationwide quarantine orders are only minutes away. Emergency responders, healthcare workers, and law enforcement have already been mobilized but with limited information to go on. The world hasn’t seen a pandemic of this magnitude in a century. Are we ready?

Fast forward one month; storefronts and schools are shuttered. Uncertainty and the monotony of indefinite life at home have settled in for millions of families. For weeks, Americans had watched as the disease rapidly spread through Europe and Asia. Here at home, confirmed cases are now in the thousands and climbing—and, without a vaccine, there’s no end in sight. The symptoms—fever, persistent cough, and difficulty breathing—are the only constants. 

Economists, governmental agencies, public health officials, and lawmakers are struggling to agree on who’s in charge, where to direct vital resources, and how to console a fearful public, while scientists race to find a vaccine and save as many lives as possible. 

While this chaotic series of events could be pulled from the pages of today’s newspapers, the scenario is actually from the archives of 2016 and inspired by the curiosity and imaginations of young learners at Sarasota Military Academy (SMA) in Sarasota, Florida. This is Operation Outbreak: a simulation launched in 2016 designed to teach hundreds of learners about the mechanisms for containment of infectious diseases.

It All Started with Learner Interests (and a lot of questions)

In March 2014, the Ebola Outbreak began taking off in Guinea. Six months later, the first positive case was reported in the United States. This outbreak, which eventually claimed over 11,000 lives, was sparking the curiosity of young learners at Sarasota Military Academy (SMA). 

“I was teaching seventh-grade civics at the time, and because [the outbreak] was getting an enormous amount of attention in the media, a lot of kids were asking a lot of questions,” Dr. Todd Brown, SMA Outreach Director, explained. “Because the kids’ curiosity was so heightened, I thought, let’s try to figure out how to use this as a way to teach about government—looking at it through the lens of the Ebola outbreak, epidemics, pandemics, and public health in general.” 

Rather than ignore the interests of his learners, Brown saw an opportunity to lean in and use their innate curiosity to learn about civics in a way that would stick with them and hold relevance to their lives.

“We looked at the government, at triage, at the doctors on the front line, and at epidemiologists behind the scenes trying to do things,” expressed Dr. Brown. “Then, obviously, we looked at the general population and the media.”

Anyone who knew Dr. Brown knew this shift was only the beginning. This was the same person who once used his entire classroom to recreate the experience of escaping a sinking World War I cruise liner, the Lusitania, and who has been recognized by the Air Force Association for his forward thinking approach to STEM education. 

Among other accolades, Brown has also received the “Ignite Innovation” award from the Education Foundation of Sarasota County. So, when he began this new pursuit, it was right in line with the legacy he had been building for years at SMA.

It Grew Legs Thanks to an Unexpected Partnership

Creating space for a new line of inquiry wasn’t enough for Dr. Brown. He wanted to make things far more interactive. After exploring who he might enroll in co-designing this experience, Brown struck gold in an unexpected way. 

One evening, Dr. Brown was reading aloud to his daughter a list of the world’s top contemporary scientists. After hearing about Dr. Pardis Sabeti, a genetics professor at Harvard University, Dr. Brown’s daughter requested her dad reach out to the geneticist for an autograph.

Dr. Brown sent a hopeful email to Dr. Sabeti—who was in the midst of responding to the Ebola epidemic—which led to a signed photograph, an unlikely series of conversations, and an even more unlikely partnership. 

Dr. Brown and Dr. Sabeti initiated a lengthy email correspondence, during which they discussed Brown’s work at SMA, and then, his nascent idea for Operation Outbreak. “It was just a basic email conversation and after a few months, I decided to ask Dr. Sabeti if she would be willing to Skype with my classes because of what she was doing on the front lines of the Ebola outbreak with genomics and genetics, and she accepted,” says Brown.

Encouraged by Dr. Sabeti’s growing interest, Dr. Brown started to believe the idea of creating an immersive program to teach learners about infectious disease response had real traction. “It had legs,” said Dr. Brown. With the support of a world-renowned scientist, Dr. Brown was ready to take the next step.


It was an amazing experience. I learned a lot about how every single part of a country—the media, the government, and the scientists—had to work together to take care of the public, and how interconnected everything is in a complicated situation.

Dana Jinete
Operation Outbreak Participant

During the next three months, Dr. Brown, in consultation with colleagues and Dr. Sabeti, designed Outbreak 1.0: a living, breathing, “gamified” simulation that ran on a sticker-based system to emulate the contact spread of Ebola.

This system encapsulates contact spread by students being “infected” through the use of stickers. Once infected, they wear their stickers on their shirts and are provided a specific number of stickers to infect others based on exponential spread. The infected individuals were then notified and would succumb to the disease based on the pathogen’s mortality rate.

The first official simulation commenced in 2016 on the SMA campus and included close to 200 seventh grade students and staff. It was entirely learner-driven.

The simulation was an innovative examination into the widespread coordination needed during public health emergencies. For example, the simulation requires a “team” of epidemiologists to identify the outbreak-causing pathogen, and for them to coordinate with government officials in drafting a public-facing health guide for communities to follow in order to slow the spread of the disease. All while giving anyone playing the role of “general citizen” the right to freely choose whether they would or would not abide by the suggested best health practices.

Developing a cure in time to save 50% of the population—“that is considered a win,” says Dr. Brown.

Since 2016, the program has continued to evolve. Dr. Sabeti deepened her involvement and joined the project as a scientific advisor in 2017. During that same year, the design team introduced its first Bluetooth-based simulation—utilizing a mobile phone application that mimicked the spread of an airborne pathogen. If an infected participant got too close to a healthy participant, their phones would recognize the lack of physical distance and the healthy participant would receive a notification that they had been infected. 

The official name of the program was formally established as Operation Outbreak in 2018. And, the SARS 2.0 simulation, “a real person simulation of a SARS-like virus that spreads asymptomatically,” was released in 2019—a prophetic precursor to the global spread of SARS-CoV-2 that has transformed the world in 2020 and is reshaping our future.

To date, Dr. Brown and his team have run ten iterations of the program in schools across the world—from Sarasota to Shanghai.

It Showed the Power of Learner-Centered Learning

Pandemics are unsettling, scary, and hard to understand, especially when there’s a persistent gap in the most basic public knowledge and preparation. Operation Outbreak is designed to intercede and cultivate a nuanced grasp of real challenges for an entire learning community. 

“We actually treat epidemics or pandemics as a low-probability, high-impact event…So when you [have] that mindset, you tend to be reactive, instead of proactive,” says Dr. Brown. 

By grounding young people’s knowledge in real life events and real life possibilities, they gain a greater awareness of their surroundings and much more. It would be simple enough to throw scientific jargon, statistics, and jarring images at learners. But, to immerse them in the stresses, real-time decisions, and politics of the moment is entirely different. Learning becomes more vivid and more exciting. 

“It was an amazing experience,” says former Operation Outbreak participant and recent graduate of SMA, Dana Jinete. “I learned a lot about how every single part of a country—the media, the government, and the scientists—had to work together to take care of the public, and how interconnected everything is in a complicated situation.”


Young people are yearning for learning opportunities that match what they see and feel happening throughout the world.

Andrew Williams
Writer & Communications Manager, Education Reimagined

Unlike conventional learning, there is an unnerving (but useful) chaos underpinning the immersive experience of Operation Outbreak. 

“It was a really wild experience,” says another former Operation Outbreak participant and recent SMA graduate, Bradford Walker. “I was freaking out the entire time, which is really important for kids to do because they’re [usually] just sitting down in a classroom for seven hours a day. And, once they go out in real life, they realize you’re interacting with people. You’re under pressure.” 

For young learners, Operation Outbreak’s manufactured stress provokes real emotions. But, it also equips them with skills to “do” life. 

Every day presents us with a fluctuating level of stress, and learning how to manage that stress is an enormously important life skill. When young people are provided learning experiences that allow them to test their resilience and learn how they handle unforeseen challenges within a low-risk environment, they will be far more prepared to handle the unexpected challenges of adulthood.

It Has Opened Another Conversation About What’s Possible in Education

Operation Outbreak was born within a real-world context (the Ebola outbreak) and today, might be the most prescient learning experience available to young people. Operation Outbreak’s expansion now includes a textbook, modular curriculums for middle school and high school students, a soon-to-be-released video series, and a college level course (in development).

Importantly, scaling Operation Outbreak isn’t about proliferating a curriculum. “We need to make sure teachers understand that this isn’t something else you have to teach,” Dr. Brown urges. “You already teach things that can fall under this umbrella. Every state standard, every subject falls under this. It’s just reframing it under the pandemic or public health perspective.” 

Creating powerful learning experiences that are not constrained by state standards but start with who young people are, how they learn best, and their interests and aspirations has had transformational impacts at public environments like Iowa BIG (Cedar Rapids, IA) and The Met High School (Providence, RI). If a standard goes uncovered during the academic year, they can simply fill in the holes during the final weeks.

Young people are yearning for learning opportunities that match what they see and feel happening throughout the world. They are ready to problem solve. They are ready to develop the emotional dexterity to navigate a world that becomes more unpredictable by the second. They are ready to lead, to contribute their ideas, and to make an impact—today.

What experiences can you co-create with the young people you serve that will lead to months-long (and often, life-long), deep engagement that is relevant to the unique interests each young learner holds? What will be your Operation Outbreak?

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