6/18/2020 Kim O'Brien

Pandemic Provides Real-Time Lessons of a Lifetime

This magazine article is part of Spring/Summer 2020 / Issue 95
  • In March, F&M faculty members attended a seminar on transitioning their curricula online. In March, F&M faculty members attended a seminar on transitioning their curricula online. Image Credit: Deb Grove

Faculty met the challenge

Professors in a range of disciplines plan to incorporate the COVID-19 health crisis into future teachings. At Franklin and Marshall, many already have.

One such instructor is Harriet Okatch, assistant professor of public health. Her “Epidemiology” students began following COVID-19 figures as the virus gained traction in China.

“They are beginning to see the relationship between epidemiology and their lives,” Okatch said.

Students tracked the virus path globally, and calculated incidence and case fatality rates based on reported figures. They considered factors hindering or accelerating spread, particularly in low-resource settings.

“They did a very good job thinking about it epidemiologically and thinking about healthcare infrastructure around the world,” Okatch said. “They are going to appreciate that epidemiology is not just theoretical. It has a place in real life.”

The implications of COVID-19 touch nearly every field of study in a liberal arts environment.

“There are a number of key aspects that fit into our course curriculum well—transmission from place to place, mathematical components that relate to transmission rates, and the epidemiology of our current situation,” said Daniel Ardia, professor of biology and the program chair of international studies.

His “Emerging Diseases” lecture became particularly relevant as students were introduced to evolutionary, or phylogenetic, tree diagrams, which are used to help trace virus genomes to identify infection sources.

“The evolutionary tree is more complicated than anything they've seen before, but they have the skills for a situation where using the tree could be the difference between life and death,” Ardia said.

He hopes students have gained “a better understanding of how personal decisions interact with global approaches.”

With the abrupt shift to virtual classes, faculty met the challenge and moved their coursework online while incorporating COVID-19 into class discussion ad hoc.

Emily Marshall, assistant professor of sociology and public health, created an online discussion forum for her “Population, Policy and Social Change” course that allows students to easily share blog posts, news articles and other pandemic-related materials they find interesting. 

“I figured it would be helpful to have a classroom space to talk about what's good information, what's bad information,” she said. “It’s the newest science, but you have to be cautious about it because it isn’t peer reviewed.”

Class topics addressed early in the semester have been revisited in a new light, ranging from Malthusian principles of population growth to the use of population pyramids to explore age structure’s influence on the spread of COVID-19.

The lessons are not intended to incite fear in students, but rather empower them as the next generation of problem-solvers: scientists, medical professionals, epidemiologists, public health officials, economists, community leaders, and more.

Okatch adjusted her epidemiology lessons later in the semester to prevent “COVID fatigue.” Prior to the semester’s end, she left students with a challenge: Persuade your peers to take COVID-19 precautions seriously.

“Based on everything they know and have learned, if they had to motivate their peers—the people who think they're invincible—using data and otherwise, how would they promote strongly and effectively?”

History should answer her question with the next generation of students who make their way into the workforce.

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