High schoolers get crash course in the economic impact of handwashing

When students in Denise Selm's business education class at Richmond High School entered her classroom on Feb. 24, they didn't know that the day's lesson would stray from the standard course materials. But they probably realized it wouldn't be a typical lesson when they learned they would be playing a game of catch.

Tim Scales delivers a presentation before a group of students at Richmond High SchoolView print quality image
Tim Scales, a senior lecturer of management and director of the Center for Entrepreneurship for the School of Business and Economics at IU East, delivers a presentation on handwashing and economics in the classroom of Denise Selm, a business education teacher at Richmond High School. Photo by Hali Cartee, Indiana University

It was the day's guest speaker, Tim Scales -- a senior lecturer at Indiana University East -- who led the group in an exercise that resembled a game of "hot potato" with several large cotton balls. The activity was a part of a larger "crash course" on the importance of handwashing -- as well as the economic impact of diseases such as the common cold and COVID-19.

The students didn't know it, but the balls -- dubbed "microballs" -- were covered in a substance only visible under a blacklight designed to simulate the spread of germs, aka microbes, that occur as people touch objects in the course of their day.

After the game, Scales brought out a blacklight and a handwashing station, and students were asked to clean their hands until the substance was completely gone.

Many students were surprised at the amount of handwashing required to clear the glow-in-the-dark "germs."

"At the start of the pandemic, I was watching the news like everyone else and they kept saying 'Wash your hands, wash your hands,'" said Scales, who is also director for the Center for Entrepreneurship and the Center for Economic Education at IU East. "I started to think about how we could help teach people to do it properly."

Inspired by the desire to make a difference, as well as a previous collaboration with the IU East School of Nursing to deliver handwashing education through the Boys & Girls Club of Wayne County, Scales successfully applied for a small grant from the IU Council for Regional Engagement and Economic Development to purchase more materials from that project for use in local schools. Since then, Scales' centers have helped expose approximately 5,000 to 6,000 grade schoolers across Wayne County to handwashing education activities.

A group of high school students stand at a handwashing stationView print quality image
Richmond High School students Kalissa Price, Isaiah Hogg and Marquez Coble come to the front of the class to see the handwashing station. Photo by Hali Cartee, Indiana University

The exercise in Selm's classroom is the next phase of the project, which will bring handwashing education to the city's high school students.

The project's impetus is educational as well as economic. According to a well-known analysis, the U.S. expends over $40 billion each year on the common cold due to factors such as missed work or school, the cost of over-counter medicines and visits to doctor offices.

"Obviously, the cost of COVID-19 has been far greater," said Scales.

The startling financial impact of spreading germs is also the inspiration for the project's name, the "Billionaire Project."

To get the lesson from the campus to the classroom, Scales has drawn upon a deep network of contacts in the local school system. Many teachers who will deliver the lessons are familiar with Scales from his centers' past role in certifying local business teachers in the community. Other educators, such as Selm, are former students who've stayed in touch after taking one of his classes as an undergraduate at IU East.

"I've known Tim about 20 years," said Selm. "In addition to being a former student, I've worked with him on several programs at IU East, including co-teaching the Business Opportunities for Self-Starters Program at IU East, Richmond High School and even Capetown, South Africa, where we traveled to help introduce the program internationally in 2009. He's also a regular guest speaker in my classroom. I felt this lesson is a great hands-on experience that can show students the results of their choices and the consequences related to their choices."

Scale's assistant during the presentation in Selm's class was Jake Necessary, a student at Richmond High who is currently interning at IU East under Scale's mentorship. Scales said Necessary played a key role in adapting the activity to a high school audience.

A hand glows blue under a blacklightView print quality image
Students used a special lotion that lights up under a blacklight to reveal how thoroughly a person must wash their hands to eliminate germs. Photo by Hali Cartee, Indiana University

"We've worked hard to get this lesson into hands of the right people," added Scale, who's also delivered the lesson to grade school students. 

He has also brought the handwashing stations to other local events, such as the Wayne County 4-H Fair. The stations include not only the glow-in-the-dark "germs" but also a large plastic tub with googly eyes, designed to appeal to the younger students for whom the project launched.

"I've seen kids run back to the sink five or six times to get all of the 'germs' off their hands," he said.

He said that many schools that delivered the lesson choose to integrate it into existing activities, with handwashing occurring everywhere from the school library to the nurse's office. Commonly, Scales or an assistant -- such as Carter Cook, an undergraduate previously involved to the project -- drops off the handwashing materials at a school's principal's office as part of an extended loan. The project's current intern, Necessary, is now helping deliver the lessons in high schools.

Under the new phase of the project, Scales is eager to see how older students react to the lesson. He's also interested in integrating more economics into the exercise so students can grasp the clear connection between staying physically healthy and economically healthy.

"COVID-19 has meant we've had to be extremely flexible working with the schools," said Scales. "Our goal is simply to provide the materials and train whomever is able to deliver the lesson. We've done dozens of Zoom calls with principals, librarians, nurses. Everyone's always very excited about the exercise.

"Especially at the start of the pandemic, when no one knew how to react, it was something people could really grasp onto. Everyone understands an act as simple -- and surprisingly powerful -- as washing your hands."