Students explore COVID-19’s societal, scientific effects through themed courses

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Last winter, students enrolled in THINK 61: Living with Viruses tracked the rise of COVID-19 up until the end of in-person classes. They studied the virus as it made its way from China to the United States, and instructor Julie Baker said that her students told her they felt like they “had fallen into the lecture slides.” 

THINK 61 is one of a handful of courses that have centered COVID-19 as a classroom topic. Over the past year, instructors from a variety of disciplines, including genetics and pediatrics, created courses to allow students to learn more about the current pandemic. Each class attempts to educate students about the pandemic from a different perspective, whether it be biology or economics. 

Baker, who is also an associate professor of genetics, has taught THINK 61 for four years. In an interview with The Daily, she explained that the broad theme of the course, though not centered completely around COVID-19, examines how pandemics shape populations, economies and societies. The course offers a multidisciplinary approach through analyzing biology, ethics, vaccine development, history and medicine, she said.

Previously, it was difficult for students to empathize with historical quarantine situations, Baker said. This year, students are “very much aware.” She also added that the course has developed a new focus on empathy, as she encourages her students to think about “xenophobia and how pandemics are always blamed on individuals or populations.” This comes in light of a recent rise in hate against Asian communities as a result of COVID-19.

Students have noted the unique nature of studying the virus in the classroom as it unfolds in their daily lives. One student, Caitie Bard ’23, enrolled in the course last winter as COVID-19 cases began to spread across the world. 

“It was really enlightening in the wake of the pandemic because what we had been discussing throughout the course had started to happen in our country,” she said. 

Bard also explained that she signed up for the class without realizing how applicable the course material would be to her daily life.

“We initially started talking about the virus when it was first starting up in China and I don’t think anyone was prepared for what was to come,” she said. “It was crazy to see how relevant this course proved itself to be in such a short time period.”

Another COVID-19 themed course, BIO 19S: Science of COVID-19, offers a biological approach to understanding the ongoing pandemic. Biology lecturer Waheeda Khalfan developed the course during the summer as a way to “get students to explore how we can use the scientific approach to understand and solve biological problems.” The course was privately taught to high school students last summer but will be taught at Stanford this summer, according to Khalfan.

BIO 19S will explain COVID-19’s attacks on the body, the immune system response, testing mechanisms and vaccine design, according to Khalfan. Students “will also engage with some of the deeper and more open questions relating to human interaction with viruses,” she said, including how to address and prevent future pandemics. The course teaches students to engage with scientific discovery and, with a biological understanding of the virus, become “more informed consumers of information,” Khalfan said.

Students can also study COVID-19 from a societal perspective through PEDS 220: COVID-19 Elective. The course aims to “educate students about the far-reaching medical and social implications of the COVID-19 pandemic,”  pediatrics clinical assistant professor Rishi Mediratta said. The course focuses on COVID-19’s impact on healthcare, education, government and economies. 

Mediratta said that he and the course’s teaching assistants (TAs) mentor students to create COVID-19 projects ranging from addressing vaccine hesitancy, COVID-19 misinformation and health education. The course offers a multidisciplinary approach to learning about the virus and allows students to apply “their skills and expertise to address unique parts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he added.

Jack Scala ’24, who joined the course as a student in the fall and became a TA in winter, said he was  grateful that the class taught him how “anyone, regardless of their background, can make a difference within their community, even during a pandemic.” Scala added that he was inspired by students’ “creativity and interdisciplinary approach” to addressing complex issues arising in the COVID era.

The course provided him the tools to make a positive impact on his local community: “I have never felt prouder to be a Stanford student,” Scala said.

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