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MMR Vaccine and Autism: Scientific Inquiry, Ethics, and Evidence-Based Problem Solving - STIRS Student Case Study

Karen Singer-Freeman, PhD
Department of Psychology, Purchase College, State University of New York
Purchase, New York
karen.singer-freeman@purchase.edu

Abstract: Students who complete this analysis case study will develop scientific thinking and evidence-based reasoning skills by examining research exploring the relation between the MMR vaccine and autism. The safety of vaccination is a popular topic in the lay media, and there has been a great deal of recent attention to the resurgence of diseases because of falling vaccination rates.  The case is based solely on actual events. In Part I students will learn how vaccines protect against illness and will become familiar with several vaccine-preventable diseases. In Part II students will learn about research ethics, research design, and the interpretation of data. In Part III students will consider ways that different public policies regarding vaccination can impact public health and individual freedom.  In a series of activities, students will consider ethical violations, interpret visual displays of data, design possible research studies, evaluate data from published studies, and consider the potential costs and benefits of changes to public policies about vaccination.

According to the classification system used by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, this case employs various approaches, including those of analysis, debate, and an interrupted case.

Use in Courses:  This case teaches topics in scientific thinking and evidence-based reasoning, including: the consideration of ways in which evidence can be used to advance knowledge, the application of design  and statistical reasoning principles to the evaluation of evidence, and the analysis of ethical issues which are inherent in research. Courses that might benefit from including these topics include first year seminar courses, and experimental design courses.  Because the topic of the case is vaccination, it would enrich introductory courses in child development, public health, epidemiology, or biology. This case would also be a valuable addition to summer research programs for undergraduate science students.

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Professor Singer-Freeman was named an AAC&U STIRS Scholar in 2014 and developed this case for the STIRS Program.