An Interdisciplinary Study of the SARS Virus: A One-Semester First-Year Seminar

By Ealy, Julie; Dorward, Adrienne | Journal of College Science Teaching, September 2005 | Go to article overview

An Interdisciplinary Study of the SARS Virus: A One-Semester First-Year Seminar


Ealy, Julie, Dorward, Adrienne, Journal of College Science Teaching


An interdisciplinary study of the SARS virus provides opportunities for students in different disciplines to discuss the origin; spread; and global, economic, chemical, and biological aspects of disease. Students benefit from active discussions with each other and share their knowledge with others in a semester-end poster session.

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In our university system, the rationale for the first-year seminar is to introduce freshmen to the university. The basic components of a first-year seminar are academic integrity, skill development, a sense of community, active and collaborative learning strategies, and technology. All freshmen must take a first-year seminar that consists primarily of freshmen, although upperclassmen may take the seminar depending on the course number.

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Faculty are encouraged to offer a first-year seminar, so the first author (Ealy) decided to offer one on the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus, its origin and spread, economic and global impact, and the chemical and biological aspects of its transmission. To design a class in which students would be actively involved and join in discussions and answer questions, Ealy had to be very prepared. Ealy spent eight months in preparation with the second author (Dorward), who became a peer mentor in the class. The class had seven students and provided a wonderful environment in which to share knowledge and ask questions.

First-year objectives

The primary objectives for students in the seminar were as follows:

* develop techniques for tackling problems students know little about, such as reading a journal article or focusing on a table, graph, or figure;

* develop a virus knowledge base that is applicable not only in specific situations but also in general situations;

* understand that many people work together and contribute to an understanding of general diseases such as influenza or of more specific diseases;

* use computer-generated software that permits 3D visualization of molecular images to enhance understanding of molecular structure;

* listen and interact with different people who individually, but more so collectively, can contribute to a better understanding of disease, and specifically of the SARS virus; and

* share their knowledge with others through a poster presentation that requires development of strategies for writing across several disciplines.

A sense of community is important, especially in a first-year seminar, so students spent the first two days of class getting to know each other, not the least important part of which was learning one another's names. For the first five classes, a student was required to say each student's name at the beginning of class. College can be impersonal, and in a first-year seminar it is important to establish an environment in which students are comfortable communicating with each other. At the end of the semester, one student commented about what the atmosphere meant to him. He said, "I really never had a class at our university where I really got to know the class, in class. The class setting was so comfortable."

Tackling problems

As Ealy planned the seminar, she wanted to impart to students the importance of two skills she learned in graduate school: dissecting journal articles and focusing on a task such as graph or figure interpretation. Students enrolled in the seminar were not all science majors, so the choice of journal articles was critical. The article chosen to begin the class was, "Are we ready for pandemic influenza?" (Webby and Webster 2003). The assignment was to read the article and return the next class period with a list and definition of words they did not understand. The goal was for students to realize the importance of not simply accepting a word's definition but to learn what it takes to understand such articles. …

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