Studying the virus

STEM classes address COVID-19

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SUMMARY: When the coronavirus shuttered campus and classes moved online, two JMU professors changed course mid-stream to deliver a unique learning opportunity for their students.

By Jim Heffernan (’96, ’17M)

COVID-19 was a major disruption to the spring class schedule. But for some JMU students, the pandemic offered a unique learning opportunity.

Prior to spring break, Chris Berndsen’s biochemistry class was studying metabolic processes and DNA structure, and his two lab sections had just finished purifying proteins using sweet potatoes. When COVID-19 shuttered campus and instruction moved online, Berndsen shifted his focus to the virus.

“With all three classes, I said, well, all of this relates to what we’re covering in class in some way, shape or form,” Berndsen said. “So let’s just try to understand what’s going on and apply it to some of the biochemistry we’ve been learning.”

Berndsen assigned a COVID-19 literature project in which his students were asked to work in teams to develop wikis—websites that allow for collaborative editing of content—around a research topic.

His lecture students, for example, could choose to examine the fundamental principles of how a virus causes an infection as well as some of the drugs that were being floated as possible treatments and how they influence metabolism. His lab students, meanwhile, could study the different types of testing for COVID-19.

Berndsen’s classes were accustomed to working in small groups on projects, but for this assignment he asked them to expand their horizons. “I wanted to see if they could get some differences of opinion, but also take advantage of the different talents students have,” he said. “Some students aren’t great writers, but they’re good illustrators or they’re good with a video.”

Berndsen also hoped the structure would help students cope with the stress of the pandemic and remote learning. “This is a tough time for everyone. Maybe, by working in a larger group and talking to each other about some of the things that are going on, they can build a community that can help them get through whatever they’re trying to get through right now.”

To meet one of the course’s objectives, Berndsen’s students published their findings on the Open Science Framework, an open-source collaborative research platform.

“By having these public works, and then being able to look at these projects and show their work, it really puts them at a great advantage,” Berndsen said.

Andrew Peachey, acting academic unit head of health sciences, began incorporating the virus into his epidemiology course in early January.

“When the notifications started coming of cases in China, we were talking about case fatality rates,” he said. “I had been using examples of SARS … and the challenges of determining the case fatality rate for that virus. So I was able to bring in what was happening in the COVID-19 pandemic right away.”

Once it became clear that human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus was happening more frequently than in other recent outbreaks, Peachey altered his course syllabus.

He asked his students to review guidelines developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to understand how the pandemic is impacting their intended professions. They were also charged with investigating randomized clinical trials that are underway, looking at the safety and efficacy of possible therapeutic treatments for COVID.

“This pandemic is different because of its impact in the U.S.,” Peachey said. “It makes it much more relevant to our students who are planning to be future health care professionals.”

Anthony Walton (’20), a health sciences major, said the assignment gave him a deeper understanding of viral outbreaks and how they inform public policy.

“It's important that people are tracking these things and keeping tabs, and I’m definitely one of those people that can stomach that risk,” Walton said. “I realized that this semester. I’m much more willing to go and help when people need help, rather than just sit around and be scared.”

Peachey said, “They’re amazingly resilient students. I’m very proud of how they have responded to support each other and to get the skills that they need so that when they graduate, they will be ready to take that next step.”

Five JMU faculty members are working to develop a special topics course on COVID-19 that will be offered this summer. The course will be cross-listed in the departments of history, health sciences, chemistry and biochemistry, philosophy and religion, and writing, rhetoric and technical communication.

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Published: Monday, May 4, 2020

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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