MTSU Honors ecology class tackles real-world ‘flat...

MTSU Honors ecology class tackles real-world ‘flattening the curve’

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has brought experiential learning on multiple levels to an MTSU Honors ecology class.

One week before MTSU spring classes began in January came the first reported U.S. cases of novel coronavirus. As weeks passed, the number of individuals testing positive exploded to hundreds of thousands of cases across the nation and more than 20,000 deaths thus far.

Biology professor Steve Howard and his Honors ecology class discuss the “flattening the curve” aspect of the coronavirus outbreak during a recent session. (Submitted photo)

Biology professor Steve Howard and his Honors ecology class discuss the “flattening the curve” aspect of the coronavirus outbreak during a recent session. (Submitted photo)

Junior biology major Jori Graeff recalls that before spring break her honors ecology class briefly discussed “whether the coronavirus would significantly impact us and if the university would be closed.” MTSU did not close, but the campus changed dramatically through the use of remote learning and social distancing to stop the spread.

Once classes resumed remotely through Zoom videoconferencing and other technology for the rest of the semester, biology professor Steve Howard decided to bring a virtual real-time “flattening the curve” research discussion into play for the seven class members because of all the attention on the deadly coronavirus — and now a statewide executive order from Gov. Bill Lee to stay at home as positive cases in the state has grown to more than 5,600.

The “flattening the curve” graphic, submitted by MTSU professor Steve Howard, indicates the significant increase in the number of daily cases without protective measures and the “flattening” when protective measures such as social distancing and stay at home policies are put into play. (Submitted graphic from Center for Disease Control)

In epidemiology, the idea of slowing a virus’ spread so fewer people need to seek treatment at any given time is known as “flattening the curve.” Howard wanted his students to grasp the science implications of “flattening the curve” and understand the ramifications if people did not take precautions.

Howard emphasized that many ecologists specialize on understanding the spread of disease in wildlife and plant populations in nature, and that many of the same techniques can be used to study the process in human populations.

“Given the circumstances, Dr. Howard thought it would be good for us to learn more about what is currently affecting all of us,” said Graeff, 20, of Nolensville, Tennessee.

“I am glad that we have discussed the topic because I am now more knowledgeable about how the coronavirus is spreading and what/how factors could inhibit or further its spread.”

Graeff and Howard said before spring break, they also discussed the “exponential growth” factor in plants, animals or viruses “in circumstances allowing them to maximize their rate of production” over time, he said.

Howard and his students ran the simulations from SimUText — an innovative and engaging way to incorporate student-centered, inquiry learning into ecology or environmental science units —in preparation for the online discussion.

Dr. Steve Howard, Honors ecology

Dr. Steve Howard

SimUText delivered two comparisons, one “flatter” than the other, Howard said. In one curve, he reduced the probability of transmission by modelling in “social distancing.”

“This is admittedly overly simplistic, but it does make the point,” he said.

“Staying at home and keeping your distance from other people when you are out and about will hopefully keep the number of critically sick individuals at a manageable level until we can develop an effective treatment or a vaccine,” he added. “Otherwise, our healthcare system could easily be overwhelmed by more sick patients than could be supported.”

Graeff said by using simulated SimUText models, “we were able to experiment with different population sizes, transmission rates and infectious periods to see how they affect the curve.”

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“I believe most of the class was surprised by the two curves that varied due to the presence or absence of social distancing,” she added. “It is one thing to hear that social distancing will flatten the curve, but for us to be able to manipulate those variables in a simulation and see the same trend puts into perspective that social distancing really is the best way to stop the spread of this virus.

“I think the class has enjoyed our epidemiology discussions because of the real-world applications since we have all been affected by this virus and we now have a better appreciation for the measures (social distancing) taken to prevent further spread. … I have gained a sense of concern for and understanding about the power of diseases to inflict damage, given the right conditions.”

Howard, who asks about the health of his students and their families before each class begins, said it is his “responsibility to bring in new material and explain it in ways that students understand. We’re supposed to add value to the course.”

“As experts in our respective fields, faculty are expected to be on the cutting edge,” he added. “In many cases, this involves discussion of material that is so new it has not made its way into the textbooks.”

Lee has extended the stay-at-home order through Thursday, April 30.

—Randy Weiler (