COVID-19 Inspires New Geospatial Mapping, Global Health, and Science Fiction Studies in Lewis College



By Linsey Maughan
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Hoping to help students gain a deeper understanding of the global pandemic that forced all of Illinois Institute of Technology’s spring and summer courses online, faculty in Lewis College of Human Sciences are finding opportunities to incorporate COVID-19 into their current and future courses.

This spring, before coronavirus altered life on campus, Assistant Professor of Psychology Steve DuBois and Assistant Professor of Social Sciences Hao Huang had been co-teaching PSY/SSCI 380 Geospatial Health, a collaboration DuBois had proposed to Huang.

“We wanted to focus on the ways variables related to space, place, and distance relate to health,” DuBois says. “Hao brings her expertise in ArcGIS, a geospatial analysis and modeling program. I bring my expertise in health psychology, health-related theory, and population-level research and study design.”

Huang had been the one to suggest calling the course Geospatial Health. “Our common interests fall in the field of geospatial health, a tremendous growth field in the past two decades, and a great potential growth field in the future,” she says.

As the course relocated from a classroom in IIT Tower to an online format this March in response to the pandemic, students stayed busy learning how to track and map COVID-19 case distribution, as well as gaining an understanding of the factors that influence distribution disparity, such as population density.

“[They were able to] examine the connection of high population density with COVID-19 case concentration, which helped them understand the mechanisms of spatial epidemiology to follow principles of keeping social distances amid this COVID-19 pandemic,” Huang says.

The course was taught in three stages: first, an exploration of the foundational theories and core concepts of both geographic information science and health; second, a sequence of hands-on exercises educating students on the spatial characteristics and determinants of diseases and geographic access to health care; and third, an assignment wherein students developed their own research questions and conducted a study related to geospatial health. Huang will be offering the same course during the spring 2021 semester under the title SSCI 385 Geospatial Health.

Meanwhile, other faculty in the Department of Social Sciences have incorporated COVID-19 into the syllabi for their online courses this summer. Patrick Ireland, a professor of political science with a specialty in global health, will be running a modified version of one of his regular courses, SSCI 318 Global Health, which will include readings and discussions on COVID-19 and responses to the pandemic.

“In Global Health, the focus is on the social determinants of health—the economic, political, and social conditions that affect individual and group differences in health,” Ireland says. “This pandemic has certainly been throwing their importance into high relief. In SSCI 318 students learn about these determinants and major causes of death and disease, as well as how to undertake global health analysis, engage in critical thinking, and work to achieve the basic and advanced learning outcomes for global health. You have to have a strong intellectual foundation before you go off trying to solve the world’s problems, after all!”

Social sciences Adjunct Instructor Christopher Deis will take a different approach to the topic of COVID-19 this summer by revising the selection of films taught in his course, SSCI 285 Social Science and Science Fiction. This time around Deis is showcasing films with thematic links to the COVID-19 pandemic, “films about disaster, human nature, survival, and society,” he says. The summer syllabus includes the films Mad Max: Fury Road, 12 Monkeys, Pandemic, Dawn of the Dead, The Road, and Children of Men.

“Science fiction has long grappled with questions about the end of the world and dystopia,” Deis says. “To live through the coronavirus pandemic, an event that will alter American society and the world in basic ways, is to experience something that most have only seen or read about in books or movies. By critically engaging with science fiction films that explore the end of the world as we know it, we can make better sense of our own lives in the present. What does it mean to live? How is that different from just existing? As we navigate this moment of the coronavirus, those basic and profound questions are of extreme importance.”

Photo: Graphic courtesy of Assistant Professor of Social Sciences Hao Huang