Course welcomes COVID-19 experts into virtual classroom

Barbara Christie-Pope was faced with doing something she’d never done before—teach a biology class completely online—when she realized she had a unique opportunity.

Instead of teaching a course about genetics, she could make the class relevant to students displaced by the global pandemic. She surveyed her students and they agreed. 

Because Cornell offers classes One Course At A Time on the block plan, she had the ability to completely revise the course, retitled The Science of COVID-19, which met over 3½ weeks in April and May. 

“Barbara adapted this course to be about COVID-19 in a matter of just a couple of weeks, which is amazing and really can only be done because on the block plan,” said Junior Sam Sande of Powell, Wyoming. “She has done so much in terms of making this course totally unique and personal.”

Christie-Pope arranged virtual visits from six healthcare experts confronting the pandemic in various fields and in different parts of the country. Students told her that was the best part of the class. 

Molly Nyberg
Molly Nyberg studies from her family’s home in Castle Rock, Colorado.

“These experts included a Cornell graduate, doctors, a nurse, professors, and an epidemiologist,” said sophomore Molly Nyberg, from Castle Rock, Colorado. “Being able to hear their stories about how the pandemic has affected hospitals in terms of the number of patients, patient care, and the impact due to the lack of personal protective equipment was eye-opening as they shared their experience with patients and the pandemic as a whole.”

The Cornell alumnus, Dr. Perry Cook  ’72, visited several times via Zoom. In one session a student asked whether healthcare workers should have a responsibility to take care of patients over and above making sure their family is safe.

“Who else can take care of these people? I think it is our responsibility. We’re trained and we have the ability to respond. Not doing that would be unthinkable for me,” Cook told them. “I’m not aware of any physician who’s walked away from providing care. To the contrary, New York recruited retired physicians and nurses to reinstate their licenses and volunteer, exposing themselves to a disproportionate risk, and thousands of people have done that.”

While the expert Zoom sessions were synchronous (in real time), other components of the class happened asynchronously. Group projects kept students connected to one another even as they were physically separated.

“She [Christie-Pope] also included assignments to be done with a team, which allowed for more socialization in a way of learning that can feel lonely,” Nyberg said. “The class was well adapted to distance learning, but also to accommodate the students in the class.”

Mastering their understanding of the pandemic gave the students a small sense of control over the unexpected turn their lives had taken. 

“Being able to have a class focused on an event that is currently impacting the world was helpful during this time full of unknowns,” Nyberg said. “By the time the class had started, there had been over a month of continuously changing information and information that remains unknown. The class allowed me to learn more not only about the current pandemic but about other pandemics, epidemics, and infectious disease in general.”

Christie-Pope said she was grateful the flexibility of the block plan opened the way for this course.

“I find public and global health fascinating. I teach immunology; I am intrigued by disease mechanisms, and I enjoy learning along with my students,” she said. “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.”

Many Cornell College professors found new and unique ways to connect with students during distance learning classes Blocks 7 and 8. This is part of a series of stories about those courses.