Cornell professor pivots quickly to teach COVID-19 course

When Cornell College made the decision to offer distance learning to protect its students and faculty from COVID-19, Biology Professor Barbara Christie-Pope began to rethink her Block 8 class. It required extensive lab work that was not possible online.

COVID map image
Image by Brian McGowan, Unsplash

Because Cornell offers classes One Course At A Time, she had the ability to completely revise the course, which meets April 20 to May 13. (Cornell’s One Course At A Time curriculum has eight blocks that run consecutively during the school year.)

The BIO 108 introductory course topic was originally focused on genetic engineering. But, Christie-Pope thought, why not teach about a more timely topic, say the COVID-19 virus? She messaged the class to offer a choice.  

“I have a proposition for you,” she wrote. “I could continue and teach a course on genetic engineering without the lab component, or we could switch topics to an in-depth discussion of the pandemic that has caused all of this disruption in our lives, COVID-19.”

Not surprisingly, the students opted for a COVID-19 class.

“One major advantage we have on the block plan is flexibility on how the course goes. Even if it is changing the whole course itself!” said first-year student Victoria Spiziri from her home in Des Plaines, Illinois. “When Professor Barbara Christie-Pope gave us the option to change the course to the science of COVID-19, I jumped on the wagon and voted to change the class. I truly think it is important to learn, be aware, and have the correct information about what is going on in the world, especially right now. With taking this course, I am excited to learn about this virus, and I hope that I can help inform others who may not know a lot about it or may have misconceptions about it.”

Christie-Pope is using the next few weeks to prepare her course content and online delivery. 

The course, now titled The Science of COVID-19, will cover the history of pandemics. It will also answer questions such as what is a virus, why are particular viruses more problematic than other viruses, how are infectious diseases spread and what can (realistically) stop the spread of viral infections, what is the virus that causes COVID-19, and how can the body handle viral infections.

“Our calendar allows me the flexibility to take the current pandemic and turn it into a teaching moment that is relevant to our students’ lives,” Christie-Pope said.