Professor Adds Some Creative Zing to His Zoom Classroom

October 5, 2020

Epidemiology professor Andrew Rundle has long deployed inventive means to liven up his classroom, incorporating references to rock music and other pop culture signifiers. This year, distance learning during the pandemic proved to be the mother of invention, inspiring the professor to push the creative envelope.

Rundle has taught the environmental epidemiology course since he joined the faculty in 2000 and inherited the course. In the first five years of teaching the class he transformed the syllabus, but by 2005, the basics were largely in place, including lessons featuring the seminal punk band the Ramones—one of Rundle’s personal favorites—to illustrate key points. (Read on for more on the Ramones’ public health lessons.) Jump to the spring of 2020 when all classes went online. During this transition, the School’s Office of Education brought faculty up to speed on online teaching, including the “flipped classroom” approach which combines pre-recorded lectures and group exercises. Rundle met the challenge of the new digital classroom space and took it one step beyond, producing entertaining videos to punch up his pedagogy.

(Watch an edit of one of Rundle’s videos below.)

“I took the opportunity to rip apart my course and reassemble it from the ground up. I decided to run with it and turn it up to 11,” says Rundle, making a Spinal Tap reference. “The examples of pre-recorded lectures I had seen and was initially making, all had the same look and feel, and I wanted to expand the experience for the students watching each week’s worth of videos.”

Each Monday, Rundle’s students are treated to a video laying out the week’s themes and providing a kind of pep talk. Rundle and guest speakers deliver these video transmissions from a series of “pandemic response bunkers” evoking an eerie atmosphere reminiscent of the underground hatches in the television series Lost. The lighting is dramatic and the video occasionally appears to cut out, revealing test patterns and static. 

Guests in these pandemic transmissions include five of Rundle’s past TAs who introduce key concepts for each week’s material. The conceit is that these alumni are now working epidemiologists fighting COVID-19 from pandemic response bunkers across the country, but they are taking a couple of minutes away from that work to help teach this year’s students. For example, Stephen Mooney, PhD ‘16, who is now an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, speaks to the importance of understanding the design of a research study. Like his fellow alumni TAs, Mooney had contributed elements to the course. Video appearances by these epidemiology rock stars are joined by two genuine rock stars—Marky Ramone, onetime drummer of the aforementioned punk band, and Sawborg Destructo, who performs as part of the outlandishly-costumed metal outfit GWAR.

I took the opportunity to rip apart my course and reassemble it from the ground up. I decided to run with it and turn it up to 11.

In the course’s opening video, Marky Ramone urges students to read the syllabus, adding in his native Queens, New York, accent, “you’re not in rock ‘n roll high school anymore.” Sawborg Destructo, whose costume headpiece features circular saw blades configured as horns, bellows out his own advice, ordering the class to “turn in your assignments on time.” He returns several times during the course videos and introduces the final class project—designing a study to determine whether pollution from Ska City’s “vile mine pits” is harming the health of residents there. One might assume Rundle is friends with the performers, but in fact, he hired them through the website Cameo, on which well-known and semi-well-known celebrities record customized videos for a price.

In fact, the Ramones have been a mainstay of Rundle’s class for years. Three of the four original members of the band died of cancer, and the professor uses that fact to elucidate the epidemiology concepts of a cluster investigation. Students are asked to consider whether this constitutes a cancer cluster and whether the punk rock lifestyle—including exposure to basement clubs thick with cigarette smoke—were responsible for their shared fate. Later in the course, he returns to the Ramones as an example of how to follow an occupational cohort, as members switch instruments and cycle in and out of the band, similar to how an epidemiologist might track worker’s careers in an automobile factory cohort. A Spotify playlist is available to edify those unfamiliar with the band’s music.

As the course progresses, Rundle and his TAs are continuing to script and edit new videos, which they hope will cohere into a semi-cohesive narrative. They have also planted Easter Eggs in the backgrounds of the video with obscure pop culture references, including—spoiler alert, class!—to 1980s cult cinema classics Buckaroo Banzai and Repo Man, 2-Tone Records, and Japanese Ska.

“I doubt my students are familiar with the Easter Egg references,” admits Rundle. “I’m okay with that. I suppose I like the idea of introducing them to some of my favorite pop culture while I teach them the fundamentals of environmental epidemiology.”