Adjusting Curriculum Across Disciplines: What Courses are Teaching about Coronavirus

By Jessica Reyes and Emily Barrett, Assistant Directors of Communications

Widener faculty across many disciplines are finding creative ways to help students understand the current Coronavirus pandemic.

A history professor is teaching how the smallpox virus altered the course of the American Revolution. A biochemistry course will finish the semester reviewing real-time scientific findings on Coronavirus. A graduate nursing class is investigating case studies to understand the impact of viral diseases, like the Coronavirus, on patients and their families.

These lessons – shifted to accommodate both an online format and the current pandemic – are now, more than ever, relevant to helping students adapt to the changing world. They also demonstrate why Widener professors are respected leaders in their fields, as they nimbly adjust instructional strategies to seize on unique teachable moments.

Jordan Smith, an assistant professor of history, always tells his students that history can help explain the contemporary human condition.

Nursing student on a laptop

He initially was not planning to focus his course on the effect of smallpox and mosquito-borne diseases in the American Revolution, but now with Coronavirus in students’ minds, he is adjusting the lessons.

Through texts, students will learn how President George Washington’s decision to inoculate the Continental Army from smallpox meant fewer American soldiers succumbed to the disease in the lead up to the Battle of Yorktown.
Smith’s course changes have also been student-driven. Before the university moved courses online, students were to present on memoirs, journals, and letter collections written by first-hand participants in the American Revolution.

Without prompting, the students consistently pulled out references to disease in the primary sources, noting the disruptions to everyday life and suffering and drawing connections to their own new reality. They noted the effect of smallpox on Black Loyalist refugees fleeing slavery and the smallpox quarantines lasting seven weeks for a recent migrant from Ireland.

“The course learnings will remind students that diseases were historically experienced differently along economic and other lines,” Smith said. “In this regard, the unit should remind us to be good community members to limit the effects of epidemics on all people.”

While the nation is witnessing nurses and other health care providers administer lifesaving care for patients with the Coronavirus, Paula Gray, clinical associate professor of nursing, is drawing on the crisis to prepare students to respond to current and future pandemics.

“Incorporating COVID-19 education in the coursework allows students to get the latest knowledge to care for patients, and themselves, during a pandemic. – Paula Gray

Using a virtual patient and simulated care-giving experience, Gray, who directs the Family (Individual Across the Lifespan) Nurse Practitioner program, explains that “students have the opportunity to exercise critical thinking skills in differential diagnoses, diagnostic reasoning, and management skills as it pertains to this disease.”

Similarly, Alexis Nagengast, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, shifted her biochemistry seminar to focus on Coronavirus for the remainder of the semester. The students will read and present on a variety of popular press and scientific articles, as well as non-peer-reviewed rapid publications.

“I am anticipating that we will see how information changes in real time as more becomes known about Coronavirus,” Nagengast said. “This has been an excellent way to engage students in the topic that is relevant to them.”

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