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Public health J-term courses offer unique opportunity for students to learn about health issues in real time

Professors from various departments work together to create interdisciplinary courses examining the world’s current climate

<p>Some classes discuss the political climate, public health issues and impacts on mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic while others focus on global responses to or the long-term effects of disadvantaged childhoods, including those impacted by structural racism.</p>

Some classes discuss the political climate, public health issues and impacts on mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic while others focus on global responses to or the long-term effects of disadvantaged childhoods, including those impacted by structural racism.

Many January term courses at the University offer a new look at everyday topics. Amidst this challenging and unique time, professors have come together to build interdisciplinary courses to shine a light on new perspectives of the world right now. Some discuss the political climate, public health issues and impacts on mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic while others focus on global responses to or the long-term effects of disadvantaged childhoods, including those impacted by structural racism.

PLAD 2500 — Pandemics Beyond the Headlines: COVID-19

A unique aspect of many signature courses this J-term, such as Pandemics Beyond the Headlines: COVID-19, are professors from different departments working together to examine their course topic in an interdisciplinary light. In PLAD 2500, Chemical Engineering Prof. Roseanne Ford and Politics and Batten Prof. David Leblang bring their respective specialties together to provide students with a broader understanding of the pandemic at a national level. Ford focuses on the fluid mechanics and biology of the virus while Leblang considers how migratory patterns and the mobility of large populations have affected the spread of the virus. Leblang highlights how impactful a course about the current pandemic can be for students. 

“We felt like it was our obligation to provide some educational opportunity for students in this space,” Leblang said. “This is what the institute is designed to do.”

Leblang and Ford are incorporating an interactive component to their class, as well. 

“We're going to use a pandemic game that's been developed by the Center for Simulation Leadership in Gaming in the Batten school,” Leblang said. “Our plan is to do it the first day of class and the last day of class.” 

Through this, the professors are allowing the students to see how their decisions have changed due to the class. 

Ford and Leblang hope this course will encourage students to be critical consumers of the world we’re living in right now.

“I think one of my big things is kind of what the subtitle is, like, they'll actually read beyond just the headlines,” Ford said. “They'll have a curiosity to say, ‘Well, they're making this claim, but how are they making that claim? What's really the basis for that headline that I'm seeing?’”

GSGS 4559 — Community Organizing, Public Health, South Africa 

On the other hand, there are courses that step away from the United States and take a closer look at the pandemic across the world. Chris Colvin, associate professor of public health sciences, Global Development Studies Director David Edmunds and Mandla Majola, the community engagement coordinator at University of Cape Town, will be teaching a course called Community Organizing, Public Health, South Africa, which will reflect on how multiple current issues affect the Gugulethu Township in Cape Town, South Africa. Specifically, the course delves into community organizing and public health issues globally, using case studies from the Gugulethu Township to take a deeper look at how that community responded to issues like COVID-19, economic decline due to the pandemic, gender-based violence and more. 

According to Colvin, South Africa reacted differently than the United States in terms of public regulations regarding COVID-19, including enforcing stricter lockdowns, though without much planning or resources in place to help poorer communities manage those lockdowns. A large part of the course involves observing and understanding the differences between the responses to current social issues between the two countries.

However, Colvin and Edmunds are taking their course a step further by giving students the opportunity to learn directly from Majola, a prominent community activist and organizer in South Africa who co-founded the Movement for Change and Social Justice. Majola worked closely with Colvin during his time with MCSJ, which was founded in Gugulethu in September 2016. 

“I think the integration of Mandla Majola into the curriculum as heavily as we have done is probably even more rare,” Edmund said. “We're kind of at some sense poking at this idea that the University is the source of all knowledge.” 

The professors are centering the knowledge Majola and MCSJ produce within a local context. They are also planning on including a service component to the course, allowing students to interact directly with MCSJ, performing services such as designing infographics, fundraising and developing a new education program. 

“We hope that it'll have some sort of active component that, even though we're virtual, will make it like they're contributing to that ongoing function,” Edmund said. 

Colvin even hopes to continue this course in the summer, hopefully in person and actually bring students with him to South Africa.

GSGS 2559 — Global Challenges, Local Responses

Francesca Calamita, professor in the department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese and an avid traveler herself, was inspired to create this J-term course to help students get a taste of the enriching study abroad experience from their bedrooms. Alongside three other professors — Colvin, Politics Prof. Len Schoppa and East Asian Studies Prof. Charles Laughlin — Calamita designed a course that gives students the opportunity to explore other cultures and countries from their bedrooms.

“We decided to discuss among three main topics — diplomatic issues, gender issues and climate change,” Calamita said. “These are issues that are everywhere in the world, but the way we address them depends on the local community.” 

Calamita points out how examining the same political and social issues we are experiencing right now in different countries can provide a unique insight into the varied effects of those issues. 

A unique aspect of this course is how it brings together four professors from different disciplines, each bringing a different perspective for each module. Additionally, it allows the students to view the COVID-19 pandemic on a global scale through the lens of four different disciplines. 

“The way the pandemic was addressed in different countries is definitely at the core of today’s basic political, social contract,” Calamita said. “So, we want to have a relevant topic of this particularly difficult and challenging time.”

PSYC 3559: How to Build a Healthy Human Brain

Lastly, Psychology Professors James Morris and Jessica Connelly designed PSYC 3559 to examine how early environments shape child development.

“Looking at impoverished environments and children growing up in orphanages and such, we know that they face a lot of social and cognitive deficits,” Morris said.

Morris and Connelly bring their disciplines together to offer students a more holistic view of early developmental effects. Their course can also be connected to disadvantaged populations of people of color in the U.S. and how they are at a higher risk for developmental deficits due to structural racism, a topic especially relevant amidst the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“I'm a brain scientist, or cognitive neuroscientist, and [Connelly] is a geneticist,” Morris said. “So, we combine those two skills together … in terms of seeing how this early developmental experience impacts [the function and shaping of the genome].” 

Their course will also discuss societal and political questions, as well. Morris reflects on how policies and societal norms could be altered in our country to ensure all children are given a chance to have the appropriate social and cognitive development necessary for success. 

All four courses bring a unique perspective to current political, social and public health issues. PLAD 2500 provides students with a deeper look into the biological and migratory aspects of COVID-19. GSGS 4559 will show students the effects of multiple global issues through the study of Gugulethu Township in Cape Town, leading to a greater understanding of how access to resources and similar factors play a major role in health outcomes. GSGS 2559 takes students on a tour of multiple countries and gives them an overview of the different global responses to the pandemic. PSYC 3559 takes a closer look at how disadvantages early in life can lead to developmental deficits, a phenomenon that can be applied to historically disadvantaged populations in the U.S. While having to adjust to a completely online format, these J-term courses will hope to engage students academically on some of the most pressing and greatest challenges of our current moment.