published November 1, 2005

SENCER E-Newsletter, November 2005, Volume 5, Issue 3

SENCER Model of the Month: Biomedical Issues of HIV/AIDS Course Challenges Students to Re-Examine Their Experiences and Policy Issues Surrounding HIV/AIDS

Monica Devanas, Director of Faculty Development and Assessment Programs Center for the Advancement of Teaching, Rutgers University

The course Biomedical Issues of HIV/AIDS was originally developed as part of the activities for a Centers for Disease Control grant at Rutgers obtained by David Burns, then Assistant Vice President for Student Services. David recruited me to offer a course in Biological Sciences for non-majors. For me a course for non-major was a new challenge, as I had been teaching pre-med, nursing and environmental microbiology courses, but I accepted the opportunity.


Biomedical Issues of HIV/AIDS uses the phenomenon of AIDS and HIV to connect biomedical principles with the public policy issues around HIV. These issues include, but are not limited to, access to medical and social services, treatment opportunities, prevention and risk reduction strategies, activism, and understanding the processes that create these policies. Students learn the biomedical principles to help them make better-informed decisions in personal, political and organizational issues.

In this course students are constantly challenged to re-examine their experiences in the light of new scientific information presented in the course materials. Issues of infectious disease and epidemiology give students a framework in which to discuss sexually transmitted diseases in the context of their lives and relationships. Students use scientific knowledge and scientific method as they address the context of the topic of their research papers. They collect primary resources to present a clear definition of a population with an HIV/AIDS problem. Students are guided in how to apply the information to a detailed solution plan that is then reviewed and assessed by an educator, health-care practitioner, or other professional.

The course is offered now on Saturday mornings, so the enrollment is typically smaller than the formerly 450 student mega-course, now down to 70-80 students. This smaller size provides me with many opportunities to engage the class in discussions: What if HIV was like Ebola, or Avian flu? What might our concerns be then? Are needle exchange programs effective? Why can't we transplant Tcells? Special "teaching moments" arise when students ask questions important and relevant to them that have been stimulated by the class content and discussions. It is exciting to have students ask "Can menthol rubs help the pain of tetanus shots?" "Why don't tattoos fade?" "Should I get my ten month-old a flu shot?" When students ask these kinds of questions, while we discuss the immune system, it shows that they are thinking and making connections between this new knowledge and their own universe of information. I presumed that this happened in the 450 student class, now I know it is happening with 70.

The core components of the course remain the same - significant content in HIV Disease Continuum, Infectious Disease and Epidemiology, Sexually Transmitted Infections, Immune System, Virology, Detection and Diagnosis, Prevention and Treatment, New Theories, and Strategies for the Future. There are no discretionary funds to support the collection of speakers who visited the mega-course, so we use more discussion of topics from research papers, news and world issues.

The best learning activity, the research paper, remains as a model for the students to understand the scholarly processes typical of a research university. They do a literature search on a population of their own choice that has a problem with AIDS, report on it together with a proposed solution plan. They are required to use quotes, statistics and a detailed appendix outline of their solution, have peers read their paper for content while an "expert" is required to critique their solution plan. This seems like a lot of work for the students, but the paper itself has a four page maximum. Getting the primary research references from peer review journals is an early challenge, while finding friends and an "expert" is a terminal challenge, but everyone goes through all the steps and usually finds the experience rewarding.

In the original version of the course there were several "wraparound" courses that were linked to the HIV/AIDS course. These courses were typically one credit independent study or seminar courses in a wide variety of departments: Education, Criminal Justice, Africana Studies, Communications, English, Human Ecology, Journalism, Psychology, Urban Studies, Women's Studies, Political Science with an optional Service Learning seminar. Faculty commitments, lack of stipends, and increased teaching responsibilities have resulted in the collapse of all but two of these linked courses. The Journalism course continues to be taught owing to the dedication of the instructor to continue to bring the message to students. The Political Science course was popular enough for the department to continue to offer it, increasing the credit/time to three credits and continues to provide students with service learning opportunities for an additional credit.

So, like other courses, our SENCER Models do evolve, change with the times and the conditions. I cannot say if my course now is better then when I was swept away by grading papers for weeks on end, but it is different and the students and I continue to marvel at the phenomenon of the human versus HIV virus, and its multidisciplinary impact on us all. Remember World AIDS Day - December 1.