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mRNA Vaccines

Module Overview

This approximately two-day supplementary curriculum module is framed around the mRNA vaccines developed against COVID-19. Designed for US high school students (ages 14–18), the module’s activities make connections between basic molecular biology and mRNA vaccines—an application that impacts all our lives.

Learning Objectives

After exploring the module, the learner will be able to:

  • Explain that mRNA vaccines trigger natural biological processes to produce specific viral proteins, which then trigger an immune response;
  • Recognize that mRNA vaccines are built on a foundation of decades of research by countless scientists;
  • Describe how cells produce proteins from mRNA vaccines;
  • Identify evidence showing that the mRNA vaccines are highly effective and much safer than contracting the disease.
Prerequisitie Knowledge

Before beginning this module, students should be familiar with the following:

  • Transcription and translation: How cells read the information in genes to build proteins
  • How vaccines work: They teach your body how to fight an infection, before it meets the real virus
  • How viruses work: They enter the body and use our own cells to make more of themselves

If you need to review or introduce any of these concepts, see our suggestions for Related Activities below the table.

Suggested Lesson Sequence

Class TimeActivityDescription
10 min How the mRNA Vaccines Work (video)This video explains how an mRNA vaccine prompts your cells to make viral proteins, a process that’s similar in some ways to a viral infection but also very different.
30 min Modeling an mRNA Vaccine (pdf)Using paper cut-outs, students model how our own cells “read” the information coded in mRNA to build a viral spike protein.
10 min How mRNA Vaccines were Engineered (video)When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, mRNA vaccines were available in record time. This video describes some of the earlier research that made it possible.
20 min Deciphering the Data (learn more and pdf)Students explore data about the safety and efficacy of mRNA vaccines. An accompanying pdf worksheet helps students organize their thoughts.

Related Activities

About This Unit

Credits (coming soon)

This work was supported by a Science Education Partnership Award (3R25GM129202-05S1) from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.