6/22/2020 Kim O'Brien

Teaching COVID in Real Time

How do you teach pandemic policy? You tackle it in real time.

Two Franklin & Marshall summer course offerings are challenging students to consider the broader implications of the public health crisis as it unfolds.

“COVID Policy: Assessing Impacts,” taught by Jennifer Meyer, assistant professor of government & public health, is prompting students to investigate and evaluate ongoing federal, state and county coronavirus policies. 

How decision makers have responded to the COVID-19 crisis in terms of policy and politics is the basis of “COVID-19 Discourse & Policy,” taught by Biko Koenig, assistant professor of government.

With travel and internships on pause for many students, enrollment in virtual summer courses has soared. Student participation in Summer Session I has outpaced any other previous summer session, with more than 300 currently enrolled.

Students in Meyer’s class are learning how to collect data, assess its validity, and use it to conduct policy impact analysis. Those in Koenig’s are turning a critical eye to the political and social context of speech and the impact it can have on the wider framing of policy responses. 

“By the end of the course, students will learn a set of policy analysis and evaluation tools that they can apply to policy beyond COVID-19,” Meyer said.

  • A students studies for finals in Shadek-Fackenthal Library in December 2019, prior to F&M's shift to virtual classes due to COVID-19. A students studies for finals in Shadek-Fackenthal Library in December 2019, prior to F&M's shift to virtual classes due to COVID-19.
  • Students study for finals in Shadek-Fackenthal Library in December 2019, prior to F&M's shift to virtual classes due to COVID-19. Students study for finals in Shadek-Fackenthal Library in December 2019, prior to F&M's shift to virtual classes due to COVID-19.
  • Business, Organizations, and Society students meet in spring 2019, prior to F&M's shift to virtual classes due to COVID-19. Business, Organizations, and Society students meet in spring 2019, prior to F&M's shift to virtual classes due to COVID-19.

A Pandemic, Then a Pivot 

Professors in a range of disciplines quickly incorporated the COVID-19 health crisis into spring teachings. 

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 in January 2020.

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

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

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

"More Complicated Than Anything They've Seen Before"

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 spring “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 the sources of infection.

“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.

  • Students in a spring 2018 class led by Daniel Ardia, professor of biology and the program chair of international studies. Students in a spring 2018 class led by Daniel Ardia, professor of biology and the program chair of international studies. Image Credit: Deb Grove
  • Students in Daniel Ardia's “Emerging Diseases” lecture  were introduced to evolutionary (phylogenetic) tree diagrams to help trace virus genomes to identify infection sources. Students in Daniel Ardia's “Emerging Diseases” lecture were introduced to evolutionary (phylogenetic) tree diagrams to help trace virus genomes to identify infection sources. Image Credit: Nextstrain.org/ncov/global

Empowering the Next Generation of Problem-Solvers

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

Across departments, students have been challenged to revisit topics ranging from Malthusian principles of population growth to the creative means in which artists have documented major historical events. 

Prior to spring semester’s end, Okatch presented her “Epidemiology” 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.

“They did a very good job thinking about it epidemiologically and thinking about health care infrastructure around the world. They are going to appreciate that epidemiology is not just theoretical. It has a place in real life.”
Harriet Okatch
Harriet Okatch
Student-Faculty Collaboration at F&M

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