Arts & Humanities faculty research in the time of COVID-19

April 15, 2020
Kevin Nguyen

Kevin Nguyen is an assistant professor in the Hutchins School of Liberal Arts and Studies STEM Education.

When did you first start thinking about Covid-19? I mean beyond responding to it in your daily life, sheltering in place, and in your professional life, reconfiguring your classes for remote instruction?

As a social scientist, I started considering the effects of Covid-19 immediately. Early on I was especially concerned about how different cities, counties, states, and countries enacted policies in relation to Covid-19 and the variation of these policies. As results of Covid-19 testing came, it became especially clear how different policies (or lack thereof) created a very unequal distribution of Covid-19 confirmed cases. Before our very own eyes, we saw how research in public health, cultural practices, and perceptions of science confounded to create very uneven responses to the pandemic.

What were the research questions you were asking beforehand and when did you first start connecting Covid-19 to these questions?

In general, my research examines how people learn and engage with science outside of school. Much of my current research examines how citizen scientists organize around water issues and conduct scientific practice. With the appearance of Covid-19, we now start to see the entire public grapple with scientific questions, concepts, and (mis)information. I thought about these research connections early on, as I saw how my own family members in Missouri were told, "it's no worse than the common flu." All of a sudden everyone is a potential citizen scientist--not out of curiosity or educational programming but because of a dire need to understand what is potentially happening to our bodies and the world. Knowledge of biological concepts, such as how viruses transmit or how your immune system responds becomes crucial information. Crucial information that is consumed very differently from say, a traditional undergraduate biology course. I can assure you that most American with even the slightest of symptoms has done the work of learning and researching scientific concepts of Covid-19. My personal research questions for these times are: how are American citizens urgently learning science to understand Covid-19? What does this look like? How can we support them?

What questions do you think you’ll be asking six months from now?

I think my questions of how people learn and engage with science will mostly stay the same. However, the mode of my questions will likely be different. If anything, I'd expect to see more urgency in relation to how people learn and engage with science. Learning science becomes less of "checking the boxes of education" or a quirky interest and more of "how do I continue to engage in science so I have an important way of understanding the world?" A long-lasting theme might be urgency and science. If our American culture is not willing to learn or engage with science during a global health pandemic, then when will we learn? 

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Kevin Nguyen