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Board Games, Card Games, and Legos

Playing out Pandemics and Plagues

With board games listed as mandatory class materials, it was clear that “Pandemics, Plagues, and Contagion” was going to be a unique class. It is team-taught by Dr. Marlene Esplin of the Interdisciplinary Humanities department and Dr. Mary Davis from the Microbiology and Molecular Biology department. Together, these professors are hoping to give the students the tools to answer questions like, “What can we learn from previous human encounters with infectious disease? How do the arts and popular media influence public perception of infectious diseases? How can non-scientists obtain and convey accurate information about infectious diseases?”

Drs. Esplin and Davis are the perfect instructors to take on this endeavor. The professors have known each other for years and first met when they were both trying to navigate achieving tenure while pregnant and raising children. Dr. Davis recently helped Dr. Esplin’s daughter crush a science fair project! As Alcuin Fellows teaching an Honors Unexpected Connections course, they’re combining their backgrounds and expertise to give students interdisciplinary insights into disease and contagion.

Dr. Esplin researches 20th century Latin American literature with an emphasis on translation. Along with her passion for literature, she has “a desire to understand our current situation and a morbid curiosity to learn more.” She is having the students read stories such as excerpts from Edgar Allan Poe, 1493 by Charles Mann, and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Dr. Mary Davis runs a lab on campus where she uses electronic health records to characterize diseases like Multiple Sclerosis and COVID-19. She is hoping to teach the students the science behind the pandemic to help relieve the burden of misinformation that has existed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as through every pandemic in history.

So, what can Honors students expect from this class? As a Biology-Letters Unexpected Connections course, there is a synthesis of understanding the science behind infectious disease and also a focus on how pandemics have been depicted before. The professors are also passionate about students completing evidence-based research and articulating the information properly. During the times of heightened uncertainty like pandemics, the spread of misinformation becomes much like a pandemic as well, deadly and contagious. By developing strong research skills, the students will be able to navigate sources much more confidently.

The source material for the class includes literature from around the world and from across time, from the smallpox pandemic to the bubonic plague and to COVID-19. Beyond literature, the class is also watching media like “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix, the movie “Contagion,” and the podcast “In Them Genes.” These films offer a more modern view on pandemics and how we handle them today.

Circling back to board games, the class has a project where they play the board game “Pandemic” with some classmates. This project is not only to model how diseases spread, it is also an exercise in understanding storytelling. Add the “Virus” card game, and then Legos to the mix, and you get hands-on, visual learning about contagious disease and human communication. The professors also noted that it was an opportunity to have a little fun “because you actually can in an Honors class!”

This is the first semester this class is being taught, so watch for the course again next year. You can remind all your friends just how cool Honors courses are while you enjoy your class-mandated board game time.