Pandemic lessons

College of Arts & Sciences faculty are pivoting their course content to address issues surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, teaching students to think creatively and to conduct research to benefit communities.

A person writes in a notebook.

Alexandrea Ravenelle jokingly says her students will be “minoring in grit by the end of the semester.”

With the quick transition to online learning midway through the spring semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic, faculty and students have had to adapt quickly to remote teaching and learning and to master new technologies. But faculty across the College of Arts & Sciences are also taking the opportunity to find ways to adapt their course content to the impacts of the coronavirus. And they are finding ways to put Carolina’s public service mission to the test — developing tangible ways to help communities.

Ravenelle is an assistant professor of sociology. In her “Fieldwork in Entrepreneurship” class, the 19 students were already conducting market research and developing plans for new services or products. Now about a third of the class has pivoted to a COVID-19 related project — strengthening their in-depth, remote-interviewing skills by talking to graduating seniors, restaurant workers and others to see how those populations are being impacted by the pandemic.

“Typically the world doesn’t change this rapidly, but this gives them invaluable, active-learning experience in thinking on their feet,” she said.

In her management and society course, “Labor Force,” Ravenelle is bringing in guest speakers via Zoom — in particular, young professionals who graduated during the 2008 recession to talk about how a pandemic-generated economic downturn could affect job search strategies.

“I’m hoping their advice will help provide a bit of a morale boost to our seniors, who are graduating into a very different labor market,” she said. “Things may look dark now, but they will improve.”

Ravenelle, an expert on the gig economy, has written a book, “Hustle and Gig: Struggling and Surviving in the Sharing Economy.” Her research into this economy of independent contractors and temporary workers (think Uber, Airbnb, TaskRabbit and similar companies) is taking on more relevance than ever before, and the media have come calling. She’s also curated a series of videos for students to watch on the firsthand experiences of immigrant workers, minimum-wage workers, former prison workers and others. Students are writing essays on how the pandemic might affect these workers.

Creative thinking and convergent science

In addition to helping with the BeAM makerspace group that is building personal protective equipment for health care workers, Ronit Freeman is teaching her students to tap into brainpower across disciplines — convergent thinking — to solve real-world challenges related to the pandemic.

The 12 students (a mix of undergraduate and graduate classmates) in her “Introduction to Convergent Engineering” class all have different majors. The associate professor of applied physical sciences has also done a shift in theme: “We are now thinking about what is the next technology the world will need over the next few weeks and months related to the pandemic,” said Freeman, “and how as a class can we make a contribution to what is happening now?”

Students will develop projects centered on:

  • Using datamining software to collate global research efforts about COVID-19.
  • Developing a remote learning website targeted to third- and fourth-graders and their parents.
  • Creating chameleon-like “smart soaps” and hand sanitizers that change colors to indicate cleanliness and safe sanitizing practices.

They are also learning ways to accurately validate scientific information, news stories and other source material using the CRAAP test (CRAAP stands for Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy and Purpose.) Earlier in the semester, they used BeAM to make a CRAAP board game. Now they’re looking at possible development of a software-based CRAAP test.

“We teach a lot of textbook theory, but students are coming together in a short time with limited resources and making an impact,” Freeman said. “I am very proud of them.”

Stories to save lives

Rachel Seidman, director of the Southern Oral History Program, said it became clear to her on the first day of class after the extended spring break that students were hungry for factual information about the virus itself and the context in which to understand the pandemic.

Seidman teaches a first-year seminar with Ross Simpson, a cardiologist in the UNC School of Medicine, called “Preventing Broken Hearts in North Carolina: History and Healthcare in the South.” The course is part of a larger research initiative called Stories to Save Lives in which field scholars are using oral histories to better understand people’s health needs, particularly in rural communities.

“Our discussions across the borders of medicine, public health and history have never felt more important than they do right now,” Seidman wrote in a recent Southern Oral History Program newsletter. “Decades later, people will be reflecting on this as a turning point — in some people’s stories, the results will be pain and loss. In others, hopefully it will have spurred them to new ideas, new commitments, new understanding.”

Students are listening to online lectures from medical professionals like Simpson, Rimma Osipov, a UNC-Chapel Hill with a Ph.D. in medical humanities; and Kym Weed, director of Carolina’s HHIV Lab (Health and Humanities: An Interdisciplinary Venue for Exploration.)

They are reading works like Daniel Defoe’s “Journal of the Plague Year,” about the 1665 London plague, Jill Lepore’s New Yorker piece, “What our Contagion Fables are Really About,” and a Smithsonian Magazine article on the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic.

The instructors are trying to help students understand how scientists and humanists translate knowledge for public audiences.

In the Southern Oral History Program archives, students have access to oral histories like this one from David Grimes — whose bout with polio inspired him to become a physician.

“For our students, it gives them a sense that people have lived through these terrible times and moments before,” Seidman said. “It gives them a sense of how those who survived made sense of what happened.”

Fighting food insecurity

Caela O’Connell is an environmental anthropologist with expertise in disaster recovery and food systems sustainability. The assistant professor of anthropology is part of the Environment, Ecology and Energy Program, or E3P, and has also been fielding media calls related to her research.

She quickly realized that for students the COVID-19 pandemic is immediate and omnipresent in their lives. “I realized that it would be more meaningful if we could connect broader course concepts with what’s happening right now in our world.”

In her large “Introduction to Anthropology” course, the students’ research projects will coordinate with the Foxfire COVID-19 Oral History Project. The students will record oral histories of how their family members are coping with the pandemic for an archive that focuses on Southeastern states and central/Southern Appalachia, which will help contribute to future research on the pandemic.

“Contributing to Foxfire, [a crowdsourced oral history project], gives more weight to what they are doing,” she said. “And having recorded these interviews with their families, they will have these to look back on later when it’s not such a current source of anxiety and pain.”

In O’Connell’s smaller “Food, Environment and Sustainability” service-learning course, her students are documenting food access resources and food insecurity related to COVID-19. They are building a website that will address needs and problems related to food insecurity, will create a clearinghouse of organizations tackling food access issues and will curate resources to help families in need and to share information about how communities are impacted.

“This is applied research that will benefit the community,” O’Connell said.

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