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Who Made Me Sick? Do You Have Cooties? A Participatory Simulation for iPads

Tech Tips for Teachers

Here is a great free app – that we just happened to produce – that the kids will enjoy using AND they will learn about how infectious diseases are spread. This app is appropriate for grades 1-12. 1st graders will take something different from the experience than 12th graders, of course  – but they all will develop a baseline understanding of how communicable diseases are communicated.

The only difference is what each grade level gets out of the experience.

Here’s how it works:

  • Download ( the Cootie app from the App store to each iPad in the class. (Your tech coordinator/assistant can do this for you. No tech coordinator/assistant? That’s a theme for another blog…)
  • Give each student his or her own iPad.
  • Teacher logs in with the user name: T3ach3r. The teacher is presented with a dashboard from which the teacher can control the participatory simulation.
  • Each student now logs in the Cootie app on his or her own iPad -- and builds an avatar that represents the student.
  • Teacher selects 1 student to be initially sick, i.e., to have the germ, to have the “Cuddle germ” – but the teacher doesn’t tell the students who that initial carrier is – of course!!
  • Teacher also selects the “incubation” period – once the student is infected with the Cuddle germ how long before the student realizes he/she is infected, i.e., is sick – has the germ? Suggestion: for the first round of the simulation set the incubation to 4 minutes, a relatively high incubation period. The incubation period is key: only AFTER the incubation period will a student see that his avatar has been infected by the Cuddle germ.
  • To begin the student participation, the teacher instructs the students to start “meeting” each other. A “meet” occurs when two students touch the tops of their iPads together and count to 5. A message appears on each of the student’s iPad saying: X met Y.  (Why 5? The “meet” algorithm needs about 5 seconds to determine which iPads are meeting, i.e., which students are meeting.)
  • Students walk around the room and meet each other.
  • With a 4 minute incubation period, the student who has was the seed to the simulation, the student to whom the teacher gave the Cuddle germ, has been meeting his/her fellow students – all the while not realizing that he/she is sick, i.e., has the Cuddle germ!
  • In a class of 30 students/30 iPads, each of the students will have a chance to meet each other once, if not several times. The initial seed carrier will have given the Cuddle germ to many fellow students, who in turn will give the Cuddle germ to other students. After the 4 minute incubation period virtually all the students will be infected and their iPads will start beeping and the Cuddle character will flash over the face of the students’ avatar – and the word “Sick” will flash repeatedly.
  • Who made me sick? Who passed me the Cuddle germ?  The participatory simulation keeps track of each person that the device has met (via a time stamp and an interesting graphic). So, a student can trace back to where he/she first received the Cuddle germ. But, who made THAT person sick – who gave THAT person the Cuddle germ? The students need to talk to each other and do some detecting. We (CN and ES) played Clue growing up – Mr. Mustard committed the murder with the candlestick in the Library. Figuring out who was the seed carrier requires the students to do that sort of deductive reasoning.
  • Play the participatory simulation again but this time set the incubation 10 seconds. What happens? Once a student realizes he/she is sick – and is a carrier of the Cuddle germ, should he/she continue to meet others? Good question!

By now the reader can understand why we called the Cootie app a participatory simulation. The students are indeed using a simulation of the spread of an infectious disease – but the students are participating in the simulation! Research shows over and over again that ownership – for example, participation – leads to increased learning.  Participating in spreading a disease – where YOU will, at some point, be a carrier, certainly increases ownership!

Depending on the grade level and the course content, students can go deep or shallow into the underlying biology of communicable diseases, into the underlying ethics of communicable diseases, etc. For example, Cooties would be an excellent tool to explore STDs (sexually-transmitted diseases) – in an appropriate class at an appropriate grade level.

Please let us know how you use Cooties in your class! Share the tip. We will publish your tip in our blog. Write us at: [email protected], please!

About the Authors

Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor and Chair in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Visit her site at

Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Visit his site at

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Reinventing Curriculum blog at