Long before the written word, humans relied on stories to entertain, instruct, and preserve cultural traditions. Storytelling is a fundamental way that humans communicate, and yet it is often left out of the college classroom. Rather than telling students stories about how something works or why it matters, too often faculty simply present them with PowerPoints that list what facts they need to remember and when that should occur.
[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ong before the written word, humans relied on stories to entertain, instruct, and preserve cultural traditions. Storytelling is a fundamental way that humans communicate, and yet it is often left out of the college classroom. Rather than telling students stories about how something works or why it matters, too often faculty simply present them with PowerPoints that list what facts they need to remember and when that should occur.
In our online virology course, we combined storytelling with a simulation to encourage our students to construct knowledge and solve a real-world problem. Students play the part of apprentice virologists charged with solving a viral outbreak across campus by identifying the virus and the appropriate treatment and prevention. Our hope (and we’re happy to say it worked) was to see the students think and communicate like virologists, weave discrete facts together to synthesize concepts, and collaborate in teams to address both the scientific and the societal fallout of disease.
We start the simulation with the following story:
In a lab on the campus of a pharmacy school in upstate New York, a research assistant (who will remain unnamed) orders a shipment of specimens to be delivered to campus. As is the case with many young, ambitious researchers, this one is overworked and lacking sleep. While unpacking the specimens, the researcher discovers he’s received unlabeled specimens resembling but not identical to those ordered. The researcher fumbles and the glass vials shatter, spilling the contents across the benchtop. Maintenance is called, the spill is isolated, and the researcher is evaluated by local doctors. In a statement to the press, the College reassures the public that “appropriate measures were taken immediately to clean up the spill” and that “the researcher is expected to return to campus after a short recovery at home.” However, by the time this announcement is made dozens of people have come in direct contact with the spill. Without knowing much about the specimen or how infectious it is, no one knows how far or how fast illness will spread, how to prevent further spread, or how to treat those who have already come in contact. It’s the job of students in BIO240 to gather clues, evaluate evidence, and work as a team to solve the outbreak.
Our outbreak story is broken into 13 short videos, each structured as newsroom updates from a fictitious local news station. Each newscast is coupled with on-the-scene footage and interviews with key players in the outbreak including concerned students, an infectious disease doctor, a recovering patient, and a local politician. These videos were designed to be filled with enough drama to keep the students engaged and sufficient realism to provide relevant connections to course material. The story of the outbreak will remain the same in future iterations of the course, though with a different virus each semester. Because we anticipated the need to change the mystery virus every year, videos were built to be open to interpretation. For instance, the patient interview included more information/ symptoms than was needed to pinpoint the virus (much like a typical patient encounter). This reinforced a skill our students will need in their professional careers.
How the course was designed
Building the course took three phases. In the first phase, we chose a virus, aligned our objectives, evaluated the content material and technological tools we would use, storyboarded the videos, and developed the course structure. We structured each week in the semester identically. Students were broken up into teams. Each team chose a name and members assigned themselves “superpowers” based on talents they thought may help in solving the outbreak—from the serious (being detail-oriented in deciphering clues) to the humorous (self-identifying as a genuine “patient zero” in infection outbreaks in their dorm!). Students were asked to complete a series of tasks: watch the viral outbreak video, watch the mini-lectures, read in the textbook and answer mastery quiz questions, participate in a discussion board, and complete group tasks.
In the second phase, we built the course and created the multimedia. Group tasks were selected based on objectives, time, and skills required. For each weekly module, groups were asked to complete tasks that allowed for creativity and critical thinking. Tasks included case studies, informative tables, patient information pamphlets, and illustrations. The summer before the course was available for enrollment, we filmed each week’s episode. We recruited family, friends, and colleagues (who graciously worked for free) to serve as actors in our fictitious outbreak. We used technology and software owned by the college or donated by others (cameras, tripods, a green-screen room at a local middle school, Adobe Premiere, Photoshop, and After Effects, Camtasia, and Audacity). Content mini-lectures were also filmed over the summer using Panopto, video recording software integrated into our Blackboard LMS.
We researched and wrote discussion questions meant to challenge students’ understanding of the science behind viruses by bringing in societal concerns. For instance, during the influenza module, students were asked to defend their stance on whether the devastation of the 1918 influenza pandemic was due to (1) the unique biology of the virus or (2) the historical context of World War I. Finally, clues to the identity of the virus were created in Adobe Photoshop and appeared as puzzle piece image files, which the students downloaded and assembled in Word as they earned them. These clues were built into our LMS using adaptive release (groups received clues upon receiving a grade ≥85 on their weekly group work). The course culminated with students demonstrating their ability to communicate and apply knowledge as a virologist would by submitting a final report to the NDCA (our fictitious version of the Centers for Disease Control) where they identified the mystery virus, provided a treatment and prevention plan, and identified the information that led them to their recommendations.
In the third and final phase, we advertised and quality-checked the course. Two versions of posters were created and hung around campus with a QR code that brought students to a trailer for the course. The posters were effective—the course reached capacity within the first five minutes of course enrollment. On the back end, we clicked through the course and made sure students wouldn’t encounter any issues on their quest to solve the outbreak.
Stories give us the necessary (and sometimes messy) context needed to understand discrete ideas, apply them flexibly, and transfer that knowledge to real-world problems. While a viral outbreak is certainly a worst-case-scenario story, it does provide students with the opportunity to apply what they know about viruses, the societal impact of infectious disease, and the critical role of healthcare professionals in disease prevention and outbreak response. By immersing our students in a media-rich narrative, we helped them think and act like virologists, a skill we hope they will replicate in other areas of their studies and professional careers.
Eric J. Yager is an associate professor of microbiology at the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences and Tammy Garren, is a contract learning designer.