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What Is Epidemiology?

Why Teach Epidemiology?
More about Excite
Excite Goals and Objectives

What is Epidemiology?

Epidemiology is the study of the distribution and determinants of health problems in specified populations and applying the learned information to control the health problems. It is the scientific method of problem solving used by "disease detectives"—epidemiologists, laboratory scientists, statisticians, physicians and other health care providers, and public health professionals—to get to the root of health problems in a community, whether the problem is a measles outbreak on a small college campus or a global influenza pandemic, an increase in homicide in a single community, a national surge in violence, or a localized or widespread rise in cancer.

Clipboard IconLike investigators at the scene of a crime, disease detectives begin by looking for clues. They systematically gather information about what happened—Who is sick? What are their symptoms? When did they get sick? Where could they have been exposed to the illness? Using statistical analysis, investigators study the answers to these questions to find out how a particular health problem was introduced into a community.

Disease detectives then use what they have learned to prevent further illness. For example, when in 1993 more than 200 people in Washington State developed similar gastrointestinal symptoms, investigators traced the illnesses to undercooked hamburgers from a fast-food chain. Warnings to cook beef until it is no longer pink halted the outbreak and prevented further transmission.

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Why Teach Epidemiology?

Epidemiology is an objective, scientific method of problem solving based on quantitative analysis. Teaching epidemiology

  • improves students' reasoning and research skills,
  • enhances their ability to analyze and solve complex problems, and
  • sensitizes them to good health practices.

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More About EXCITE

A CDC educational tool
EXCITE was developed by CDC to teach students about the causes and prevention of disease and injury while improving their research and analytic skills. Students learn the scientific method employed by epidemiologists—or disease detectives—and use what they have learned to solve real disease outbreaks on their own. This hands-on experience shows them the relevance of the methods of science to the real world. Materials currently on the Web site are targeted to middle and high school classes, but they are adaptable for all ages, from elementary school students through graduate school.

Applicable across curricula
Although EXCITE is especially applicable in general science and mathematics classes, it is well suited to team teaching and adapts easily to other areas, including biology, environmental science, health education, social science, language arts, computer science, and family consumer science. Creative teachers have used EXCITE to teach data interpretation and graphics production, to build skills in nonfiction writing, and to raise awareness of current events. The benefits of using EXCITE in the classroom extend to teaching cooperative learning, team building, and group problem solving. Experience with epidemiology has even inspired some students to consider careers in public health.

A history of success
Since its inception in 1996, EXCITE has been

  • incorporated into National Science Olympiad
  • included in the CORE Institutes of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship's Leadership Program of Teachers
  • incorporated into the 21st Century Schoolhouse, an international web-based educational program currently reaching 11 countries
  • incorporated into the Georgia Governor's Honors Program;
  • introduced to teachers and administrators at the district level in several states
  • exhibited at annual conferences of the Georgia Science Teachers' Association
  • presented in training workshops for middle and high school teachers, and
  • taught in numerous classrooms across the country.

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Goals and Objectives

EXCITE is designed to teach

  • the basic principles and methods of epidemiology as they relate to scientific inquiry;
  • the use of epidemiological approaches for practical, real-life problem solving; and
  • the role of "disease detectives"—epidemiologists, laboratory scientists, statisticians, physicians, and other health care providers, and public health professionals—in detection, control, and prevention of community health problems.

After successfully completing EXCITE materials, students will be able to

  • identify and interpret the meaning of risk factors for health problems, including infectious and chronic diseases, injury, and disability
  • use comparative reasoning to evaluate risks for health conditions
  • apply the scientific method of investigating a disease outbreak to real-life situations affecting health
  • understand and use basic concepts of mathematics and statistics in assessing health risks
  • develop an epidemiological case definition
  • design a basic case-control study for investigating a disease outbreak
  • define and use selected medical and epidemiological terms, and
  • describe the epidemiology and clinical features of selected health problems.

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This page last reviewed October 31, 2008

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