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Learning Focus: Students in ANTH 62 Investigate the Intersection of Evolution, Health, and Disease

Ashley Kehoe sits down with Instructional Designer, Adam Nemeroff, and Anthropology Lecturer, Vivek Venkataraman to talk about ANTH 62: Perspectives on Evolutionary Health and Disease and the upcoming student iBooks showcase in Berry main corridor in Baker/Berry library.


Ashley: Vivek - What is the course about?  What inspired you to teach this course?

Vivek: The course is about how human evolutionary history influences modern health and susceptibility to disease. One idea we discuss is that maybe our bodies, as organisms that evolved for millions of years in harsh environments, are pretty good at doing their jobs to get through the day. We might try to reduce a fever with medicine, ice a swollen ankle after a sprain, or prevent the nausea that comes with morning sickness, but what if these are evolved defenses that are normal and healthy? Messing with our evolved defenses may actually do more harm than good in particular contexts. Ideas about treatment and intervention, not to mention our fundamental understandings of health and disease, are completely transformed once we consider them in the light of evolution, although this fact has yet to be widely recognized. I was inspired to teach this course because these ideas have very direct consequences in our daily lives and have major public health implications that I feel students should be aware of.

Ashley: How did you two get connected on the course?  What has the experience of working with an instructional designer been like? 

Vivek: Because this is a new course I contacted Adam to ask his advice on setting it up. Adam’s perspectives on the learning process were extremely helpful and really helped me operationalize the course. Working with Adam to understand how to structure the content in a way that maximizes active student learning was especially valuable.

Adam:  [See below] Vivek and I drafted a really rough map of what the course design looked like.  We thought really carefully about the course objectives and how they are supported by the assessments, activities, and units of the course.  This somewhat silly representation of the course became a cornerstone for our planning efforts, including the final project.

A hand-drawn course map from ANTH 62's early planning stages. Adam and Vivek planned out course visually to better understand the student learning experience in the course.

Ashley: Adam mentioned the iBooks author project.  Vivek - Can you tell us a bit more about that project?

Vivek: As mentioned above, I think the evolutionary perspective on health and disease has important public health implications that are only beginning to be realized. To communicate this perspective more broadly--and to foster cross-talk between health practitioners, evolutionary biologists, and patients-- can only be a good thing. The iBooks project attempts to do just that--students examine the evolutionary basis for an aspect of human disease and explore how this perspective alters how we view and/or treat the disease. The students will then communicate this perspective to other members of the Dartmouth community through visual media on the iBooks.

A draft version of one of the book chapters in iBooks.
A draft version of one of the book chapters in iBooks.

Ashley: Can each of you talk about what you love about this course and your involvement?  What has surprised you most?

Vivek: I like how this perspective generates links between seemingly disparate phenomena--the content is just inherently fascinating, and so it’s fun and easy to convey why it’s important, even to someone who isn’t familiar with biology or anthropology. How is it possible that food preferences could be contagious via microbes that manipulate our feeding behavior? Or that treating yourself with worms could cure your allergies? Or that owning a cat could make you more likely to be in a car accident? This stuff is stranger than science fiction, which makes it so much fun to teach and communicate. I think the students will find the same.

Adam: I really have enjoyed being in conversations about the course from the ground floor.  It’s been awesome to work with someone who cares deeply about their teaching and wants to create the best learning experience for his students.  I really enjoyed my couple of visits to class where I helped the class to think about their final projects and how to leverage iBooks to do what they want to do.  I also have a new fascination with honey after talking to Vivek about food usage across cultures!

Ashley: Anything else either of you would like to add?

Adam: Readers, you should totally stop by Berry Main Lobby on June 1st from 12:30-1:35 to check out the student exhibits in iBooks on iPads.  We’ll have some cookies there too!


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