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Emma RNA Saves the Day coloring book helps children understand how COVID-19 vaccines work

Fun, age-appropriate learning tool created by ScienceLIVE team at UMass Chan

By Sandra Gray and Sarah Willey

UMass Chan Medical School Communications

November 24, 2021

Children can now learn about the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 and the RNA vaccines that protect against it while enjoying a favorite age-appropriate activity. The Emma RNA Saves the Day coloring book, created by a team of scientists at UMass Chan Medical School, is especially relevant with COVID-19 vaccines now available for children ages 5 to 11.

“It’s been a passion of mine to do a science coloring book since before the pandemic,” said Angela Messmer-Blust, PhD, assistant professor of RNA therapeutics and senior scientific advisor in the RNA Therapeutics Institute at UMass Chan, and mother of a 5-year-old. “With the pandemic, we felt we had an obligation to educate the community about vaccines and we wanted to do it a fun way.”

Mary Pickering, PhD, (left) and Angela Messmer-Blust, PhD
show off copies of Emma RNA Saves the Day.

Emma RNA Saves the Day was produced by the ScienceLIVE (Learning with Interactive Virtual Education) team at UMass Chan, which Dr. Messmer-Blust leads with Mary Pickering, PhD’06, and director of public engagement with science for the RNA Therapeutics Institute. Summer intern Erin Kim, a senior majoring in biochemistry at Wellesley College, brought her artistic talent as well as scientific knowledge to write and illustrate the 18-page, comic-style coloring book, with Messmer-Blust serving as scientific advisor and Dr. Pickering as scientific editor.

The book is available online for download and reproduction, and printed books are sent by request to educators, families and health care providers. Thousands of copies have already downloaded and shipped. The coloring book is available in Spanish and translation into other languages is underway.

“The elementary age group can really grasp the concept of the vaccine using the illustration portion of the coloring book,” said Pickering. “We tried to give a little bit more information with vocabulary/words that they may be hearing  in what we call ‘science breaks’ throughout the book. So even if older students weren't going to necessarily color the book, they certainly could read it as an understandable information source.”

“I couldn't have asked for better timing with the books arriving just as the vaccines for 5- to 11-year-olds were going to be approved,” said Joseph Cunha, PhD, a sixth-grade science and social studies teacher at Flagg Street School in Worcester. “On the first day of school I pulled out the book and a couple of kids started  saying, ‘Oh, it's a coloring book, that’s babyish.’ I went ahead and used it for a read aloud – it doesn't matter what age they are; kids love to be read to. And about halfway through, you could see the look on their faces where they were starting to understand. It educates them so that it's not this big, scary thing that's going to get them because they can be protected.”

Dr. Cunha will continue to incorporate the book into his cells and life cycle unit.

ScienceLIVE is a UMass Chan outreach program for Worcester middle school students aged 10 to 13, launched to provide engaging, hands-on activities designed for virtual teaching during the pandemic.

In addition to the coloring book, the ScienceLIVE team has created a COVID-19 and RNA vaccine infographic as an alternate presentation for all ages. A middle-school version will be available soon. The team ultimately hopes to expand its curricular offerings for elementary school.

Emma RNA Saves the Day has been featured by the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, WCVB-TV5 and Spectrum News 1. On Nov. 19, Messmer-Blust accepted a Boston Celtics Heroes Among Us Award on behalf of the project at the TD Garden. The awards recognize an individual or individuals who, through their unique commitment and humanitarian spirit, have made exceptional and lasting contributions to their community.

Related stories on UMassMed News:
Remillard Family Community Service Fund awards nine grants for UMass Chan collaborations
Interactive virtual ScienceLIVE program builds in Worcester schools
ScienceLIVE brings virtual labs to area middle school students