Tackling the COVID-19 pandemic in interdisciplinary classrooms
Rarely has one aspect of daily living escaped the COVID-19 pandemic. This global event is very personal.
So personal that people want to know more about the looming, ever-changing virus. Good information, though, is not always clear and accessible.
Faculty at Virginia Tech have offered in-depth classes specifically about the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s so much misinformation and then misunderstanding, or the lack of understanding,” said Ignacio Moore, professor from the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Science and affiliated faculty member of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. “We have people who don’t know, and we have researchers who know. So, let’s try to educate people.”
Moore, along with Jeremy Draghi, assistant professor from the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Science, and Amanda Hensley, a graduate student and Interfaces of Global Change fellow, taught a Science of COVID-19 class this past fall.
The class covered topics across disciplines, both biological and societal. From spike proteins to the history of pandemics, more than 60 undergraduate students received broad information about the pandemic.
“I really wanted the students to understand that scientific problems don’t fit into disciplinary categories,” said Draghi, an affiliated faculty member of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and the Center for Emerging, Zoonotic and Arthropod-borne Pathogens (CeZAP). “They don’t fit into the separate boxes that we put them in. We wanted them to see what a scientific endeavor looks like in real time and not what the textbook summary of it looks like after the fact.”
Arranged as a malleable, discussion-based course, students combed through an interdisciplinary collection of knowledge, stemming not just from the lead instructors, but also from researchers across the university. This transdisciplinary format was necessary because of the pervasive and multi-faceted nature of the pandemic.
“COVID-19 is an extremely complex disease ranging from biology to engineering science, from veterinary science to medicine, from virology to environmental science, and from social science to public health,” said X.J. Meng, interim executive director for the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. “These COVID-19 undergraduate and graduate courses developed and offered by Fralin Life Sciences Institute-affiliated faculty members serve as an ideal teaching topic for our students to learn about convergence science and complex problem-solving ability through cross-disciplinary approaches.”
Every week, different faculty, including many within the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, gave insight into their research pertaining to COVID-19. Approximately 18 total guest lecturers worked with the class.
“Obviously, COVID-19 changed our world, especially universities and how universities work,” said Moore, an affiliated faculty member of the Global Change Center. “One of the things that became apparent was that we have a lot of expertise around campus. And part of our goal is to show that, when you come to Virginia Tech and when your tax dollars pay our salaries, you really are supporting both education and the science that is directly pertinent to this class.”
This cross-disciplinary framework mirrors another COVID-19 class taught during the 2021 fall semester by Kylene Kehn-Hall, associate director of CeZAP and professor from the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.
Designed as part of CeZAP’s Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program in Infectious Disease, the graduate course featured a diverse range of faculty members delivering a lecture every week.
“Over the past year and a half, people who don’t classically study virology have really delved in, taking what they know in other disciplines to help with the pandemic,” Kehn-Hall said. “That’s very important because we can’t look at just the virus. We have to look at it from many different viewpoints.”
The public's understanding of COVID-19 is ever-growing and dynamic; as is the way people view the pandemic. Therefore, the Science of COVID-19 class could not be fixated on static content.
Instead, students engaged in discussions related to the most recent COVID-19 discoveries and events. Many of the lectures were based around questions the students themselves had.
“It was challenging putting the syllabus together for this course because we had to address questions and research developments in real time,” Draghi said. “We definitely left a lot of time to talk about student questions and left blanks in the schedule to discuss things as they came up.”
Flexibility has been a shared ingredient for professors when crafting courses about COVID-19.
In the 2020 spring semester, Glenda Gillaspy, professor from the Department of Biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and affiliated faculty member of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, led the second half of a graduate class just as the pandemic began.
“One of the things I was trying to do was put together what we were going to do in the second half and maybe touch on some more practical things — real-world issues and problems that biochemistry addresses,” said Gillaspy, an affiliated faculty member of the Translational Plant Sciences Center. “And so that’s what we did. We read the papers on COVID-19. It was really impactful talking about that in a class as it was unfolding.”
Gillaspy transitioned into the fall semester teaching a COVID-19 course for first-year undergraduates. Except, the students drove the class.
Students would ask questions, read over the data, and formulate projects on topics like viral load and vaccines. Gillaspy served to answer questions and guide the students through the developing evidence.
In both instances, the courses served to study the pandemic in real time, while students cultivated practical skills.
“I wanted them to see science in action,” Gillaspy said. “I also wanted them to feel empowered as early-career scientists.”
Sifting through information has been a focal point for COVID-19 classes at Virginia Tech, both with scientific journals and mass media. Learning how to best navigate the media surrounding COVID-19 has become even more imperative as misinformation ravages social media networks.
All five instructors hoped the classes would encourage students to communicate clearly the science behind COVID-19.
“Our hope is that it doesn’t end at the classroom or with the quiz or the exams,” Moore said. “The hope is that they go and spread this information to their friends and family and that you can have a longer-term or broader effect.”
The pandemic continues to evolve with new variants and emerging prevention tactics, so the class may evolve as well. Relying on guest speakers and solely focusing on COVID-19 may not fit in future semesters, but transitioning toward an emerging diseases class may be a possibility.
Either way, Virginia Tech faculty members continue to work research, education, and service into their COVID-19 classes, while giving students the tools to maneuver through an ever-evolving pandemic and a minefield of COVID-19 misinformation.
Written by Tyler Harris and Sarah Boudreau