A screenshot from Eric Plemons' lecture on propaganda, offered on the Panopto online video platform.
A screenshot from Eric Plemons' lecture on propaganda, offered on the Panopto online video platform.

Bringing Pandemic Lessons to the (Virtual) Classroom

Faculty in a range of disciplines across campus are incorporating COVID-19 discussions in their online classes.
April 1, 2020
Extra Info: 

For the latest on the University of Arizona response to the novel coronavirus, visit the university's COVID-19 webpage.

For UANews coverage of COVID-19, visit https://uanews.arizona.edu/news/covid19.

Kate Ellingson
Kate Ellingson
David Sbarra
David Sbarra
Matthew Grilli
Matthew Grilli
A screenshot from one of Matthew Grilli's online lectures on the brain.
A screenshot from one of Matthew Grilli's online lectures on the brain.
Rick Michod
Rick Michod
Jessica Braithwaite
Jessica Braithwaite
Eric Plemons
Eric Plemons
Calvin Zhang-Molina
Calvin Zhang-Molina

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact so many aspects of people's lives, University of Arizona faculty members from a range of disciplines are finding ways to use the global health crisis as a teachable moment in their courses.

The University of Arizona, like many universities, made the decision to move classes online for the remainder of the spring semester, beginning March 18.

As faculty members and instructors worked to transition their classes into an alternate format, many also adjusted their lesson plans to focus on the subject at the top of everyone's mind. 

Here are just a few examples of the many ways in which instructors are incorporating COVID-19 discussions into their online classrooms.

Teaching Public Health Principles in Real Time

Kate Ellingson, an assistant professor in the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, teaches an upper-division infectious disease epidemiology course with 33 students.

"I've adjusted my normal course curriculum to give COVID-19 updates, and I use the pandemic as an opportunity to teach key principles," she said. Some of those key principles include: infectivity – a virus's ability to infect a person; pathogenicity – its ability to cause disease; transmissibility – its ability to spread; and virulence, or disease severity.

"At the beginning of the semester, we were examining the outbreak closely, but from afar. There has been a major shift now as we are processing a global pandemic in real time and thinking about our own roles in mitigation as individuals and as a community," Ellingson said.

After returning from an extended spring break, students had many questions about how COVID-19 had changed their personal lives, as they voiced concerns for themselves and their families, communities and vulnerable populations across the globe, Ellingson said.   

"The tone changed now that we're all living through this together," she said. "Some asked about the safety of family members who are health care workers. One student had a newborn baby sister and questioned whether she should visit her. They asked about things they have seen in the media and the epidemiologic evidence behind those phenomena."

In their first class after spring break, they discussed a research paper published less than two days prior on how long the virus lives on various surfaces.

"They appreciated the ability to anchor their questions in science that we talk about in class," Ellingson said.

Your Brain on COVID-19

UArizona psychology professor David Sbarra has fully reinvented his Health Psychology course, which is now being offered online, to focus on COVID-19.

"Everything we learned in the first half of the term will become background for this half of the course," he said. "My feeling is that if the University of Arizona is open for classes, then my role as a professor is to deliver the best possible class I can."

Sbarra's 286 undergraduates will spend the rest of the semester focusing nearly entirely on topics related to the pandemic, including, among other things, the psychology of panic and social isolation, stress management, the epidemiology of disease progress, the role of public health guidance on decision-making, and the role of culture in accepting social distancing policies.

"This is the moment for us to pivot to this topic in my class and for the students to learn about critical reflection as we live through this experience," said Sbarra, a clinical psychologist and director of the Laboratory for Social Connectedness and Health in the Department of Psychology. "Importantly, we will also cover how to mitigate the effects of repeated exposure to potentially traumatic experiences in the media, and we will use what we learned from 9/11 about vicarious trauma to ensure that people are taking care of themselves."

Assistant professor Matthew Grilli, also in psychology, is incorporating coronavirus discussions in his classes, too.

"We know from psychology that learning is easier when information is relevant to ourselves and what we think about and care about," he said. "Our students are thinking about and they care about COVID-19 and how it's impacting their lives."

For his Mind, Brain and Behavior class – required for psychology majors – Grilli plans to give lectures to his 200 students online, via Zoom videoconferencing, on how the brain protects itself from viruses and how it reacts to stress.

"From moment to moment, our brains are accomplishing a bunch of incredibly difficult tasks, most of which we take for granted. These are all things that the brain does operating in the background," Grilli said. "I tell my students on day one of classes that we're going to hit pause on some of these moments and try to reveal how the brain works. In some respects, COVID-19 hit pause for us. We get to use the moment to take a closer look at the brain and get a sense of how it's working."

The Evolution of a Virus

In the beginning of the semester, an evolutionary biology class of 170 students studied the evolution of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

RNA, the molecule responsible for encoding genetic information used to build proteins based on that information, is prone to making errors. Because of this, RNA-based viruses such as HIV can evolve quickly, making it difficult to develop a vaccine.

Coronavirus is also an RNA virus, says ecology and evolutionary biology professor Rick Michod, who is teaching the second half of the course. He has adjusted his curriculum to return to the topic of evolution as it relates to the new coronavirus.

"I've decided to focus our later Darwinian medicine lesson on coronavirus," Michod said. "Darwinian medicine is the study of human health through the lens of evolution. For example, our bodies heat up when we're fighting infection to kill pathogens in our body. We've evolved to cope with parasites and pathogens, and we respond to them in certain ways."

Michod said his students already understand how and why RNA viruses evolve so quickly. By the end of the semester, Michod hopes that with more information on COVID-19, he can discuss how the concept applies to the current pandemic.

The good news, Michod said, is that preliminary evidence seems to indicate that the coronavirus does not mutate and evolve as fast as other RNA viruses, which makes the prospect of effective vaccine development more likely.

Pandemic Politics

Last week, Jessica Maves Braithwaite, an assistant professor in the School of Government and Public Policy, asked the 29 students in her combined United Nations and Advanced Model United Nations class to work in small groups, using email and shared Google Docs, to think like the World Health Organization.

"I replaced the originally planned homework assignment and group activity in order to have students focus their energy on developing a set of country- and region-level recommendations as if they were WHO advisers," she said. 

Braithwaite's course, designed specifically for members of the university's Model United Nations student organization, typically covers the workings of the U.N. and some of its principal organizations and specialized agencies.

"I had already been planning to talk about the WHO at the end of the semester, so I moved that set of lectures and activities up a few weeks," Braithwaite said. "I adjusted the content of my lectures to focus more on how the WHO specifically responds to 'public health emergencies of international concern,' or PHEICs, like COVID-19."

Braithwaite said it's a timely opportunity to illustrate the different tasks and obstacles the WHO regularly faces.

"One thing I hope students take away from the lectures and activities is that the WHO, like so many U.N. specialized agencies, faces considerable challenges in terms of balancing the need to address emerging crises rapidly with the pressure to respect the sovereignty of individual U.N. member states, all while trying to develop and coordinate evidence-based policy responses across international borders," she said. 

Misinformation and Representation in the Age of Coronavirus

Eric Plemons, a medical anthropologist and associate professor in the School of Anthropology, teaches a general education course called Many Ways of Being Human, which has 140 students.

The theme of his course this semester is "borders and boundaries" and includes a unit on the boundaries between truth and lies. He'll now focus that portion of the class on fake news and misinformation surrounding COVID-19, including various conspiracy theories around the origin of the virus.

"I'll be incorporating lectures on how the media is portraying and how our government is representing whether or not there is a crisis and what kind of crisis it is," Plemons said. "We'll talk about how we come to trust media sources and why particular people might want to manipulate the story about what this virus is and what it's doing."

He'll also incorporate COVID-19 into a planned discussion on the boundaries between utopia and dystopia.

"As an anthropologist, we look at the virus as an event that helps make visible the existing fissures in our society. So, when we talk about utopia and dystopia, we can talk about this as an example: When people feel in crisis, do they decide to look for ways to help each other, or line up outside of gun shops anticipating the breakdown of society? Those are different theories of humanity being acted out in real time," Plemons said.

He also will engage the 40 students in his Introduction to Medical Anthropology class – many of whom are anthropology majors or pre-med students – in discussions about government investment in certain forms of intervention and why governments manage populations in particular ways.

"We'll find all kinds of ways to look at representation of the role of government in the distribution of health care and the different philosophies of how that happens or doesn't happen in different places," Plemons said.

"I think a lot of people, students and the general population, want ways to talk about and think about what's happening to them right now, and they want to have someplace to have a critical conversation about it – to ask questions and share their frustrations and confusion," Plemons said. "I think that it makes sense to provide that through the university when we can."

COVID-19 by the Numbers

Calvin Zhang-Molina, an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics, is talking about the spread of the novel coronavirus in his Mathematical Modeling course, a senior capstone class of 30 students. 

"Given the current COVID-19 virus outbreak situation, I devoted the first few online lectures after the spring break to the mathematical modeling of COVID-19 transmission as a means to engage my students and to use mathematical analysis to promote rational thinking and avoid stereotyping and panicking," he said.  

Zhang-Molina says he hopes his students will find the mathematical modeling of COVID-19 transmission challenging and motivating, and will use the case study to develop their abilities to apply and connect their knowledge in different contexts.

"Incorporating the ongoing work carried out by leading global teams on the mathematical modeling of COVID-19 virus transmission into the class allows me to provide opportunities for students to appreciate the interdisciplinary integration of mathematics with public health and public policymaking, and more generally, the meaningful connections between the practices of academic disciplines and the prominent issues in our society outside classrooms," he said.