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Teaching coronavirus: Some college professors have written it into their lesson plans

Professors in fields including biology, economics, environmental engineering, art and business have written the coronavirus and its impact into their curriculum at universities around the region.

Brian DeHaven, assistant professor at LaSalle University, teaches his upper level virology course on Zoom, photographed in Philadelphia, Pa. on Wednesday, April 8, 2020.
Brian DeHaven, assistant professor at LaSalle University, teaches his upper level virology course on Zoom, photographed in Philadelphia, Pa. on Wednesday, April 8, 2020.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

When Brian DeHaven learned last month that he would teach his virology class remotely for the rest of the semester, he asked students whether they wanted to continue the regular curriculum or focus on the pandemic.

They chose the pandemic.

“So, the rest of the course, we will be talking about historical pandemics and comparing them with this current one we’re in,” said DeHaven, an assistant professor at La Salle University.

It wasn’t such a stretch, considering that virology is the study of viruses.

But professors in other fields, from economics to environmental engineering, from art to public health and business, are pivoting their courses toward the virus, too, and looking at how it relates to their fields.

“I thought it would be useful to get engineering students to realize they have a role in understanding and resolving the various problems around coronavirus,” said Charles Haas, department chair of civil, architectural and environmental engineering at Drexel University.

» READ MORE: More colleges move to, plan for online classes as coronavirus spreads

Haas wasn’t even scheduled to teach this semester, but developed the course Coronavirus and Engineering, which enrolls 35 students and will look at virus-related engineering issues, such as filtration (how masks work), ventilation (keeping indoor air clean), and “differential equation modeling,” used in the study of disease transmission.

At Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., Amy Forsyth, an associate professor of art, architecture and design, has asked students to draw comics illustrating a day in their lives during the pandemic. She drew several herself, including one titled: “What I did today or why I’ve gained 10 pounds in coronavirus quarantine.” The first comics panel shows a big dog face, which is what she wakes up to every day, her pet Sheltie. Others show her teaching a class on Zoom, dyeing her hair, and cooking an elaborate meal.

“This is something they will come back to,” she said of the assignment, “and look at and see where they were at this particular point in their lives.”

The University of Pennsylvania has a number of offerings, including a Wharton course, Epidemics, Natural Disasters, and Geopolitics: Managing Global Business and Financial Uncertainty, that looks at the impact and implications of the virus. And Penn biology professor David S. Roos is focusing on the coronavirus in his course on infectious disease.

At La Salle, assistant professor Adam Pellillo remembers being a college student in 2008 when the recession hit. He wanted to learn about it. Now, he’s giving students in his health economics class a similar opportunity.

“This is going to be one of the defining economic events of the 21st century,” he said. “For students of economics, it’s really important to understand the effects of the COVID-19 economic crisis, and consider how governments around the world are responding to the outbreak itself and the economic impact.”

His colleague DeHaven began mentioning COVID-19 in his virology course early on during the semester. The last two weeks before spring break, he spent 15 to 30 minutes on it in each class as interest grew. One day last week, DeHaven lectured via Zoom about testing people for antibodies to the virus.

“Why do we care so much if you have antibodies? What do we hope that means?” he asked students.

“Immunity,” one correctly answered.

“Exactly,” he said. “What we’re really hoping for is that this is like a lot of other viruses, where once you get it once, you’re going to have long-lasting immunity.”

Teaching students about the virus will enable them to talk to and educate others, he said.

“You guys can really make a difference,” he told his students during an earlier class. “You’re in a virology course. We can really go in and understand a lot of this, and hopefully you can explain it to people, put some people at ease, and spread some knowledge in real time.”