As misinformation over COVID-19 vaccine side effects and distribution conspiracy theories continue to flood social media, members of the general public are often left unequipped with the scientific literacy to discern between clickbait headlines and reliable information.
But Prof. Elizabeth Rhoades, microbiology and immunology, is trying to change that.
A researcher and lecturer, Rhoades jumped on the opportunity to mold a more science-informed student body by crafting a new first-year seminar course: Biology 1250: Keep Calm and Be Science Literate in the Pandemic.
As science is politicized and misinformation continues to spread through social media feeds like wildfire, the class teaches students how to ask questions, find reputable sources and make informed decisions — and how dangerous it can be when that doesn’t happen, Rhoades explained.
“How can you distinguish pseudoscience from real science? How can you make well-informed decisions about your health if you don’t know immunology? The answer is that you become science literate,” the course description reads.
Targeted toward first-year students regardless of their science background, Rhoades is offering this one-credit course in-person during the second half of the semester. Rhoades explained that the course is structured around class discussions and hands-on activities, and will equip students with the tools to distinguish fact from fiction.
“I want to teach [my students] how to go find real news, and how you can tell it’s not fake,” Rhoades said. “They will learn how to check if the source has any biases or gains, and how to be skeptical when they consider certain sources.”
Rhoades said the course will first provide students with a foundational knowledge of the immunology behind the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as how the vaccine can trigger the body’s defense against infection.
According to the course syllabus, students who take this class will be able to evaluate popular scientific claims, explain the biology behind vaccines and COVID-19 tests and engage in productive conversations around sociocultural issues of the pandemic such as healthcare disparities.
Then, the class will shift toward dissecting the social implications of the virus, as well as misinformation across social media and fraudulent news sites.
Students will also gain hands-on experience navigating scientific rhetoric. For one assignment, students will either take the stance of a COVID-19 vaccine skeptic or believer and analyze each side’s argument for the impact the vaccine could have on the long-term health of individuals.
“This type of exercise highlights the technique of gathering and applying information, and more importantly, it may open students’ eyes to different perspectives,” Rhoades said. “I want students to learn enough about vaccines and where to find information about them, so they can make informed decisions if a vaccine is a good decision for them or not.”
According to Rhoades, the experience of this class will have a multiplying effect on generating a more scientifically literate public, as students can have informed discussions on vaccine safety with their friends and family.
Ultimately, Rhoades said she hopes the course will empower students with the critical thinking skills that will allow them to draw their own conclusions on scientific issues, even if they don’t have extensive knowledge of science.
“You don’t have to be a science expert to make science decisions, but I want to teach students to track down the facts online when reading the news, and to be able to make educated choices for themselves,” Rhoades said. “I see this as science communication at its best.”