Penn State IST course teaches theory behind COVID-19 public health guidelines

Jessica Hallman
March 08, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Wash your hands. Stay six feet apart. Wear a mask.

These are the messages that have been conveyed by public health officials for the past year to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. The directions are simple enough to understand, but would they be easier to follow if the reasons behind them were clearer?

That is what Frank Ritter hopes to explore and get students thinking about in a special topics class being taught at the College of Information Sciences and Technology this spring. The objective of the course, titled "Skills To Obstruct Pandemics," is to help students gain better understanding of how to avoid diseases and how knowledge is represented differently in various media.

“I would like students to know more about the theory behind the non-pharmacological interventions to slow down the spread,” said Ritter, professor of information sciences and technology. “The theory helps people perform the interventions because they know the ‘why’ and from that can adapt them and make them more comfortable and doable.”

The course is an extension of a tutor designed by Ritter at StopTheSpread.health, which teaches skills to obstruct pandemics, and an accompanying book co-authored by Ritter and a number of external professionals and experts at Penn State, including Edward Glantz, teaching professor of information sciences and technology, and Amanda Clase, associate professor at the Applied Research Laboratory. Along with Ritter, Glantz and Clase are co-instructing the special topics course.

Vishaka Datta Jambae Hebbar, a graduate student in the Penn State School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, signed up for the course because of the instructors’ blended backgrounds in cognitive science and immunology and the fact that they have structured a course at Penn State around a textbook they’ve published, given the novelty of the virus.

“I am hoping that I will understand the term ‘pandemic’ very well and how to be prepared if there is ever another one,” said Hebbar. “I hope to be in the capacity to better equip my society or company to prevent such diseases.”

While Hebbar said that he is fortunate to have friends and peers who follow the public health guidelines to mitigate the virus, he actively shares the reasons he learns with them.

“We do follow the guidelines, but do we know why? When should we wear a mask? Why should I stand six feet apart and not four feet?” said Hebbar. “All these questions I could ask the teachers without any hesitation and the answers they give are scientifically correct as they are experts in these fields.”

Another student in the course, Hannah Caminiti, is a senior in the College of Nursing. She signed up for the course since she will be working in hospitals in the near future.

“I will most likely be working with COVID patients, so having the most knowledge about the virus will benefit me,” she said.

Even working in the medical profession, Caminiti said that what she’s learned so far in the course has helped her to enhance her behaviors by knowing the statistics that surround them.

“Washing hands, wearing masks, and maintaining a social distance are crucial to decrease the transmission, and continuing to make these changes to help decrease the spread is so important,” she said.

For Ritter, he hopes that the course will not only educate his students, but also make an impact for the local community and beyond.

“Knowing how to protect yourself and your community from the disease and diseases related to this pandemic can help slow the spread of the pandemic,” he said. “It can help reduce the load on the health care system, making the system able to help people who need it for non-pandemic reasons.”

He concluded, “The pandemic seems to be somewhat prominent from my perspective, so creating the course seems like a step toward reducing the pandemic using the particular skills, talents and resources around me, and protecting ourselves and those around us.”

Last Updated March 08, 2021