Dr. William Cliff demonstrates the proper use of his homemade mask.

Hands-on learning took on new significance for students in Dr. William Cliff’s global health course this semester. While the professor of biology and his students watched the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, they were reading about the warnings that were “so clearly spelled out” in their textbook about the threat of emerging infectious diseases and the worldwide insufficiencies in pandemic preparedness.

When class began in the middle of January, initial reports of an unknown virus in Wuhan, China, were being broadcast by the media, prompting Dr. Cliff and his students to begin tracking the daily increases in incidence rates and prevalence of the novel coronavirus as it exploded in Hubei province and eventually spilled out into other parts of the world. Throughout the semester, they became even more aware of the potential impact as the coronavirus made its way through Italy, Spain, and other parts of Europe. When spring break approached, they became fully “conscious of the reality of the preeminent danger here and now posed by this virus to our personal health, to the health of our critical care system, and to health and well-being of our entire world,” Dr. Cliff said.

“The unfolding pandemic has touched each major section of our course in some shape or fashion—epidemiology, health, equity and economics, ethical and human rights concerns, health systems, culture and health, the environment and health,” he continued. “And, on the positive side, it has enabled us to learn important lessons from a critical analysis of the public health success accounts that have come from South Korea, Germany, and other locations worldwide.”  

Now conducting his courses online, Dr. Cliff brings current reports from the news to class to discuss their significance to the topics in global health his students are learning. He notes that his small class sizes enabled him to move from in-class instruction to an online learning environment “without losing appreciably the sense of personal connectedness and community.”

While a remote classroom might make experiential learning difficult, Dr. Cliff’s personal experience, and that of his students, has given them all an extraordinary opportunity for hands-on learning. Dr. Cliff has shared both the practical aspects of living during a pandemic—sheltering in place, using a face mask and proper hygiene, and following other recommended public health practices—as well as strategies to remain physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually healthy. He also has been open in showing his students how he is coping daily with the new “normal” at home with his family and in his neighborhood and local community.

Dr. Cliff plans to use these real-life examples of public health to illustrate principles from his Introduction to Public Health course this fall.

“It has been a humbling experience for me, an instructor, to have been awakened to the significance of what I could have easily taught so ‘academically’ as the semester began,” Dr. Cliff said. “And my students have been awakened to the preeminent importance of public health to each of our lives. There is nothing better than daily lessons about global health drawn from the reports about COVID-19 from pages of the daily news to help keep them alert, and for them to live out the evidence-based health practices suggested by public health authorities in these extraordinary times. It has compelled all of us to seek a deeper understanding of the key principles of public health and to wrestle more urgently with the multitudinous problems of global health in the 21st century.”  

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