Revamped course has students apply math and biology to pandemic

Professor Lindi Wahl in front of blackboard

Professor Lindi Wahl will swap out her chalkboard in favour of smartboards and Zoom lectures, with students using COVID-19 data to predict patterns of the disease.

It’s not often that advanced math terminology makes for popular dinner table talk.

But with a global spotlight on COVID-19, everyday conversation is now peppered with epidemiological phrases such as “flattening the curve.”

And to professor Lindi Wahl – whose Mathematical Biology course revolves around such concepts – that’s a silver lining to this dark pandemic.

“We always want to make sure that what they are learning is relevant to the students’ real experiences now, and their future experiences in the workforce,” said the applied mathematics professor.

Wahl has transformed her course into an active learning format where students will use real-life COVID-19 data to model and predict patterns of the disease.

“We are all thinking about (COVID-19) and reading about it all the time. This is a huge opportunity to teach something I hope they will retain or take home to their roommates – although they might not have roommates this year,” Wahl said.

“It’s kind of exciting to me that there would be an advanced math course that people would be sufficiently interested in, that they would talk about it around a dinner table. That would be a triumph.”

For the past two decades, Wahl has been teaching third- and fourth-year undergrads and first-year graduate students about flattening the curve, herd immunity and other epidemiological concepts in her undergrad mathematical biology class.

Typically, her course includes “all the flavours” of mathematical biology, she said. But this year, she has given it a new name: Mathematical Biology: COVID-19 Modelling and Prediction and she plans to swap textbooks for newspaper articles.

She is one of several Western instructors changing the bulk of their course content, and among hundreds making big transitions in how they deliver their courses in response to the pandemic.

About half of her class will learn remotely and the other half will attend class in a “physically distanced classroom” – one of seven innovative Western Active Learning Space (WALS) rooms designed for active, collaborative learning.

Her room will have seven “pods” that typically fit seven students at each table, and will seat only two each this term. Each pod has its own projector and smartboard. Wahl has been working with the Centre for Teaching and Learning to ensure the mix of online and in-person students can successfully work together.

Wahl will teach her students to build mathematical models that can predict the “curve” of COVID-19 infections, and how interventions such as physical distancing can flatten that curve.

Using COVID-19 data, they’ll be required to measure “R_0 value,” which is the reproduction number, or average number of people that could be infected by every individual with the virus. They will use their own models to predict how COVID-19 will play out, then check the accuracy of those predictions.

The applications are more than theoretical: similar models are used to plan public health strategies and help hospitals make staffing and logistical preparations, such as numbers of intensive care unit beds.

Lindi Wahl

Professor Lindi Wahl

“She has this very compelling life sciences problem – a pandemic – and she can use it to help students to learn,” said professor Geoff Wild, who also teaches applied math.

Because the virus has had a drastic impact on our lives, people have been interested in understanding how COVID-19 spreads and how to prevent that spread.  As a result, there is a broader understanding than normal about technical terms and concepts.

So, when a teacher says students are going to learn to calculate R_0 value, that catches their attention, said Wild.

“The fact that they can learn that and then turn around and talk to their friends and family about what they are learning – that engagement is priceless.”

Wild, too, has been working to transition his winter term course online for 1,000 remote learners.

He’s been recording lectures and YouTube videos for the course – Calculus and Probability with Biological Applications – and has been learning the benefits of incorporating innovative activities such as collaborative text-reading into the class.

There are challenges but Western teachers are motivated to find ways to stay connected with students. Most will do far more than post pre-recorded lectures online.

Wild plans to be as accessible as possible to his students this coming year.

“The consensus is that other than the medium . . . you still should be showing up to your job. We want to turn out citizens that are knowledgeable.”

Wahl has been getting comfortable using collaborative technology like Zoom, so she can best support remote students in different provinces, countries and time zones, and be ready to move fully online if necessary.

While preparing her classes in response to this pandemic, Wahl has also been working with colleagues in Nepal to research the dynamics around what some people believe could trigger the next one: Avian Influenza. On Aug. 20, she presented their study to the Canadian Undergraduate Mathematics Conference.

She has a personal understanding of the benefit of doing relevant work. In 1996, Wahl worked as part of a research group collaboration that involved White House health advisor Tony Fauci for an early HIV research project – a collaboration she jokingly referred to as her “claim to fame.” .

By then, Wahl was already a firm believer in how math could help people. While doing her doctorate at Oxford University, she studied HIV modelling with a focus on effects and resistances to different medications.

“That was where I got hooked to mathematical biology,” she said. “It was the feeling that you could make a difference.”

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