Students learn public health, zombie style

BETHESDA, Md., — A course at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences here is teaching students global health care delivery in a unique way that’s sure to be a “thriller.”

Students in USU’s family nurse practitioner doctorate of nursing practice program must take a population health course as part of their degree requirements. This online class outlines key principles in responding to and understanding population health – the overall health of a group, be it a group of employees, a community, or entire nation. Students must apply what they learn about theories and models of public health care through debate, small-group work and a series of creative scenarios –including a zombie pandemic.

“We use the narrative device of a zombie pandemic in animations and assignment to help engage students in content,” explained Catherine Ling, assistant professor and family nurse practitioner for the DNP and PhD programs in USU’s Daniel K. Inouye Graduate School of Nursing.

The students watch video clips of scenarios, including one of the nation’s “president” delivering a brief “State of the Zombie Pandemic” address. They see the impact that a fictitious zombie virus has made on a population and the fear it has created – along with “anti-zombie” posters strewn all over cities.

Reinforcing Course Lessons

These scenarios reinforce teaching materials regarding various tools that shape population health planning and interventions, Ling said.

The zombie coursework keeps the material interesting, and the underlying zombie theme throughout each lesson in the module makes it more cohesive, Ling said. In turn, she added, narrative cohesion makes it easier to remember the material and therefore makes it easier to apply in a real population health emergency.

As part of a fictitious Defense Department division called HHIT, the students draw on what they’ve learned throughout the course to enact a quarantine, administer widespread vaccines and obtain international resources, Ling explained. Meanwhile, she said, they must remember to follow actual DoD guidelines when responding to the “growing zombie pandemic.”

The purpose of the course is to provide a working understanding of essential competencies in population health, Ling said, noting that this skill set is critical in an era of increasing antibiotic resistance, emerging infectious diseases and pandemics such as Ebola and Zika.

Positive Feedback

Ling said she’s always looking for ways to keep students engaged by keeping the material relevant and interesting. Those who aren’t into zombies don’t have to watch the videos – they can read the storyline instead.   Students have consistently provided positive feedback, Ling said, often commenting that this is the best online class they’ve taken.

A student who has taken the course, Air Force Capt. Marcie Hart, echoed those sentiments. As a big fan of the TV show “The Walking Dead,” Hart said, she was excited when Ling mentioned the course would involve a “zombie apocalypse-type scenario.”

“The videos are very tastefully done,” Hart said. “The ‘infected’ can be cured later in the scenario, so the characters are not using deadly force, and it is not overtly violent.” Hart added that the videos are suspenseful and exciting, taking somewhat bland, abstract information and making it interesting and concrete. “I thought it was a wonderful, fun twist to this course,” Hart said.

Encourages Creative Thinking

While the course is interesting, it also allows the students to use “the other side of their brain,” Ling noted. It gives them a chance to think creatively, she said, and it enhances their problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. The online course is necessary, she added, because a third of the students travel on a temporary duty assignment during the semester.

Ling’s efforts to focus on student engagement and look for ways to make course work interesting and thought-provoking earned her the Teaching with Sakai Innovation Award for 2015. The award recognizes educators from institutions around the world for their excellence in teaching and learning.


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