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Education: Lesson Plans

Acquired and Passive Immunity: Diphtheria Antitoxin Serum

Grade level 7–9 | Subject - Science

Time needed

two 45-minute class periods


This lesson plan focuses on students’ learning several terms related to the immune system and defining what acquired and passive immunities are and how they differ. In Class 1, students are introduced to diphtheria and antitoxin treatment through three primary-source images featured in From DNA to Beer. They then learn about the cause of and 19th-century treatments for diphtheria by exploring the “Living Factories” section of the online exhibition. In Class 2, students examine the illustration, “How did they make diphtheria antitoxin?,” which provides a general overview of an acquired immune response in the horses injected with the diphtheria toxin. They build on the illustration and add elements that show how the horse’s antibodies from the serum provide passive immunity to prevent or treat diphtheria in people. Afterwards, students use MedlinePlus’s Medical Dictionary to define and learn several terms associated with the immune system. At the end of the class, students work on group projects creating an educational illustration of how the diphtheria vaccine works.

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  • learning outcomes
    Students will be able to
    • Explain how animals were used to develop and produce diphtheria antitoxin.
    • Define and put into use several term related to the immune system, such as toxin, antitoxin, antibody, acquired immunity, passive immunity, serum, and pathogen.
    • Describe the difference between the acquired immune response and passive immunity.
    • Illustrate how diphtheria vaccines work.
  • background information

    Teachers are encouraged to preview the From DNA to Beer exhibition website, specifically its “Living Factories” section. In addition, teachers may review information about different parts of and responses by the immune system using the following online resources:

  • vocabulary

    The following terms may be introduced or incorporated during class activities, as needed: antitoxin, serum, antibodies, pathogens, diphtheria, toxin, immune cell, acquired immunity, passive immunity, inoculate, vaccinate

  • materials
    Print All Materials
    • Three Primary Sources (PDF, MSWord);
      Teacher’s Three Primary Sources (PDF)
    • Diphtheria: Causes and Treatments (PDF, MSWord);
      Teacher’s Diphtheria: Causes and Treatments (PDF)
    • Immune System Vocabulary (PDF, MSWord);
      Teacher’s Immune System Vocabulary (PDF)
    Other materials and set-ups:
  • class 1 procedures
    1. Introduce and hand out copies of the Three Primary Sources worksheet to students. Have students work in pairs to complete the worksheet.
    2. Have several students share their definitions of the three phrases and how the three images may be related. Encourage students to explain how they used the images and titles to make those inferences. See suggested discussion guides on Teacher’s Three Primary Sources.
    3. Display the “Living Factories” web page. Tell students that the three primary-source images are from the “Living Factories” part of the From DNA to Beer exhibition website.
    4. Scroll down on the “Living Factories” page and read aloud the exhibition text starting with “Humans and animals have natural defenses…” and ending with “…use of large numbers of animals for production.”
    5. Tell students to work in pairs again and re-describe how the three primary-source images may be related, based on the exhibition text.
    6. Have students volunteer how they have rephrased the relationship among those three primary-source images. Summarize for the class that the horses were used to produce medicine—i.e., diphtheria antitoxin serum for human patients.
    7. Distribute copies of Diphtheria: Cause and Treatments to students, and review the worksheet instructions as a class. Afterwards, provide students devices with the Internet access to or equivalent printouts of the slide transcript pages from “Living Factories”, and have them work in pairs to complete the worksheet.
    8. Have the class come together and ask several students to share answers on their completed worksheets. See suggested discussion guides on Teacher’s Diphtheria: Cause and Treatments. (link to the handout PDF)
    9. Collect both worksheets that students have completed in the class for evaluation.
    10. Class 1 Evaluation: Teachers may evaluate students’ prior knowledge and learning progress through informal observations, as well as students’ completed worksheets.
  • class 2 procedures
    1. Return the students’ worksheets collected from the previous class—i.e., Three Primary Sources (link to the handout PDF) and Diphtheria: Cause and Treatments. (link to the handout PDF) Review students’ work from Class 1 briefly.
    2. Display the illustration, “How did they make diphtheria antitoxin?” Review the illustration as a class, while identifying the key biological function depicted in the drawing—i.e., the horse’s immune response to the diphtheria toxin producing antitoxin in the blood.
    3. Focusing on the “4. antitoxin medicine” on the right side of the illustration, read aloud the following excerpt from the “Living Factories” site: “…blood serum, collected from animals inoculated with toxins from bacteria. The natural protection these animals developed against the toxin could be passed to humans through injections of the serum…”
    4. Have students work in pairs to add a minimum of two illustration elements that show antitoxin injection into human patients and how it works to treat or cure them. [Note: The added elements would show the horse antitoxin ‘neutralizing’ the diphtheria in people.]
    5. Call on several students to share what they have added to the illustration, while drawing the elements students mention. Summarize and clarify the different immune response to diphtheria toxin by noting that:
      • Diphtheria toxin injection activates the horse’s immune system that fights the toxin by producing the antitoxin in the blood;
      • Antitoxin from the horse blood is transferred to fight the toxin in people who are sick with diphtheria infection.
    6. Tell students that they are going to learn some terms that will help them distinguish the two different types of immunity depicted in the enhanced illustration. Distribute copies of Immune System Vocabulary, and provide students online access to MedlinePlus Medical Dictionary or equivalent printed dictionary. Allow students work individually to complete the worksheet.
    7. Review students’ completed Immune System Vocabulary worksheet as a class. Allow students to understand the difference between the acquired immunity and passive immunity. Afterwards inform students that today children “acquire” immunity that prevents diphtheria with a vaccination.
    8. Divide the class into groups of three to five students. Have groups access the following online resources about today’s understanding of what diphtheria is and how it is prevented:
    9. Assign groups to create illustrations with text labels, based on what they learn about what diphtheria is and how it is prevented today. Provide the following criteria, in addition to the already established evaluation rubric for student writings:
      • Illustration uses colors and shapes that help distinguish different parts clearly.
      • Title, label, and description texts are included to inform viewers.
      • At minimum, 7 out of 14 “Immune System Vocabulary” words are used in the illustration.
    10. Have groups work in class and have them complete the illustration as homework for the next class.
    11. Class 2 Evaluation: Teachers may assess students’ understanding of the terms and concepts related to the immunity through observing class discussions and students’ completed worksheet.
  • extension
    1. Gallery Walk: Have students hang up their group illustrations around the classroom. Have them complete a gallery walk in groups, selecting which poster they think is the most effective in informing people about how the vaccine works in activating the immune response and allowing children to acquire immunity against the diphtheria-causing pathogen.
    2. Provide the following online resources about the immune system to students and have them work in groups to present what they have learned about the immune system. Allow groups to choose the mode of their presentation—posters, brochures, songs, skits etc.
    3. Have students access the records of five horses from the “Animal record book,” and translate each horse record into a graph that shows the frequency and amount of the toxin injection and blood drawing. Allow the graphs to be displayed around the class to discuss any patterns observed and to generate additional questions about how animals are used in research.
    4. Assign students to investigate and write an essay on how animals are used in scientific and medical research today. Guide students to identify a specific animal and area of research for their investigation and essay. Allow students to present their essays and ask questions, which may lead to class debates on how we define ethical use of animals in research.
  • Common Core State Standards: English Language Arts and Literarcy
    Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
    • Distinguish among facts, reasoned judgment based on research findings, and speculation in a text
    Reading: Informational Text
    • Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
    • Integrate information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words to develop a coherent understanding of a topic or issue.
    • Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.
    Speaking and Listening
    • Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade-level topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.
  • Next Generation Science Standards
    From Molecules to Organisms
    • Develop and use a model to describe the function of a cell as a whole and ways parts of cells contribute to the function.
    • All living things are made up of cells, which is the smallest unit that can be said to be alive. An organism may consist of one single cell or many different numbers and types of cells.
    • In multicellular organisms, the body is a system of multiple interacting subsystems. These subsystems are groups of cells that work together to form tissues and organs that are specialized for particular body functions.
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