Learning from a pandemic

CMU faculty from many disciplines face COVID-19 with lessons, courses

| Author: Jeff Johnston

Central Michigan University's first course about the COVID-19 pandemic has already wrapped up, and more are on the way.

That's no surprise to CMU Provost Mary C. Schutten.

"The COVID-19 pandemic is a defining event in history, affecting nearly every aspect of life," Schutten said. "It's inspiring to see the CMU community respond quickly, creatively and thoughtfully during this time, and kudos to our faculty for adapting and providing meaningful, creative learning experiences for our students."

A four-week one-credit Perspectives on Pandemics course, offered through the Critical Engagements initiative in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, ended May 3. It featured faculty from multiple disciplines — biomedicine, economics, history, public health, literature and more — bringing historical and cultural perspective to the current crisis and past pandemics.

The online course drew 31 students, including nine from the College of Medicine.

"I took the course to learn more about COVID-19," said history major Brennan Klein, of Grayling, Michigan. "I learned that it isn't the virus alone that is causing all the pain and suffering. It is also our actions in response to it."

Faculty member Lana Ivanitskaya in the School of Health Sciences is getting ready to co-teach a summer course — HSC 512N, At War with the Virus: Coping with COVID-19 — that she's created with partners from Indiana University, the Swedish HealthCare Academy and around the world.

The three-credit online course, June 29-July 10, focuses on global responses to COVID-19. It's open to CMU graduate students and undergraduates with 77 or more credit hours.

Ivanitskaya said students will interact with speakers representing not only wealthier countries such as Sweden, whose health care system is one of the world's best for patient outcomes, but also poorer regions of Africa and the Caribbean. In all, five continents will be represented.

"It is a great elective for those who are in the health professions or for anyone who may be interested," said Reneé Castellon, communications and marketing coordinator for The Herbert H. & Grace A. Dow College of Health Professions.

Other faculty adapted their spring 2020 courses on the fly to address the pandemic.

For example, Matthew Koutz's Model United Nations course in Political Science and Public Administration pivoted to focus instead on the World Health Organization after the pandemic led to the cancellation of the national Model UN conference in New York, which the class had planned to attend.

Students developed presentations about how WHO should respond to the pandemic and produced an informational pamphlet about COVID-19.

In the College of Science and Engineering, co-teaching faculty members Shasta Sabo and Mallary Wacker led their SCI 720 Advanced Cell and Molecular Biology graduate students in learning about how the novel coronavirus infects the lungs.

"In talking to students, I realized that they had a lot of questions themselves about the virus, and they were being asked about it by friends and family," Sabo said. "Around that time, scientific articles were beginning to be published identifying the virus and describing how it could enter and infect cells. So we read those papers and discussed them in class."

In Liz Alm and Tom Gehring's multidisciplinary BIO 585 Conservation Medicine course, students learned about connections among the health of people, animals and the environment and focused on diseases at that interface. Topics relevant to COVID-19 include viruses, viral mutation, global hotspots for disease emergence, wildlife exploitation, live markets and more.

"Since we began offering the course in 2009, we have examined in real time the 2009 influenza pandemic, the emergence of MERS in 2012, the Ebola outbreaks from 2012 to present, several avian influenzas and Zika in 2015," Alm said. The course will be offered again in spring 2021.

Faculty in Computer Science covered pandemic-related privacy issues, contact tracing, machine learning and artificial intelligence in several courses, while Biology faculty covered mechanisms of viral infection, the "flatten the curve" approach and more. In the fall semester, BIO 539 Virology will focus on COVID-19.

Also this fall, two Statistics, Actuarial and Data Sciences student researchers will produce an Honors Program project on COVID-19 for which they are already collecting data, said CSE Interim Dean Jane Davison.

And in the Department of World Languages and Cultures, faculty member Derek Drake's special topics course GER 370 Advanced Studies in German will address the pandemic's world-changing cross-cultural implications, particularly its impact on life in Europe, the U.S. and Michigan.

"This course is grounded in using authentic language and authentic up-to-date resources to develop students' abilities to discuss life and society as the world focuses on recovering from this global pandemic," said María Chouza-Calo, interim department chair.

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