Though vaccine distribution has begun — which some hope might stave off the coronavirus — the global pandemic continues to infect thousands each day in the United States and abroad.
But as the global medical community continues to study and learn about the virus, Penn State researchers and others have collaborated to create resources like the “Declarative to Procedural-Skills to Obstruct Pandemics” (StOP) online tutor, which seeks to educate students and the broader population on how to avoid the coronavirus.
Frank Ritter, a professor in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, led the creation of the online tutor. Recognizing the oncoming gravity of the pandemic in early 2020, Ritter said he wanted to create a resource that gathered the most up-to-date information in one place.
The tutor involves people studying informational slides on the coronavirus before taking short quizzes relating to various aspects of the pandemic, according to its website.
Working with the methods studied by his Applied Cognitive Science Lab, Ritter and his team built an online tutor with quizzes and an abundance of information on the virus.
“I’m interested in how people think and learn — I’m interested in modeling how people think and learn, that is to say, simulating them,” Ritter said. “That work has led into using the theories we have to build computer-based tutors.”
Working with various experts and colleagues, Ritter gathered information and built the tutor for release to the public near the beginning of the pandemic.
“This is the largest tutor we’ve ever built. This is the fastest we’ve ever built such a large tutor. This is the largest number of experts we’ve brought in to check our work, and all of that helped our processes,” Ritter said. “But it’s also useful when you have nothing to do and to be slightly scared as well.”
One of the many collaborators who helped contribute to the creation of the tutor was Amanda Clase, a researcher with doctoral degrees in microbiology and immunology, who previously worked with the Department of Defense on biodefense projects.
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“When I came to [the Applied Research Lab], I did so for the purpose of trying to bridge the gap between biodefense and public health, because the science is the same, but they don’t always interact a lot,” Clase said. “I think COVID has really exemplified the fact that those two topics need to work together more.”
Though the tutor was researched and created by experts, according to Clase, it is meant to be available to anyone who wants to learn more about the coronavirus.
“Basically what it does is take all the information already out there in very disparate areas and puts it together in one source and provides some background so that people understand why public health officials are making the decisions that they’re making,” Clase said.
But as information changed, so did the tutor. The information given to the public in the early weeks of the pandemic often needed to be updated or changed. Even now, Ritter and his team try to keep the tutor current.
“We’re still [updating the tutor],” Ritter said. “There’s a new page that we’re working on now about vaccines.”
After the publication of the tutor, Ritter and the team published a book based on the same material. Additionally, Ritter co-teaches a special topics class on coronavirus prevention this semester.
Alexis Fenstermacher, now a nurse at Pittsburgh’s UPMC Presbytarian Hospital, served as a research assistant for the project during her senior year at Penn State. Fenstermacher graduated with a nursing degree in spring 2020.
In her role, Fenstermacher said she tried to keep up with the updates and recommendations from medical organizations while also pulling from her own nursing experiences.
“We did a lot of writing and a lot of checking each other constantly,” Fenstermacher said.
Ultimately, Fenstermacher said she was happy with the timely work the team put into the tutor and, later, the book.
“I think it turned out really great, and I’m really proud of the work that we did in such a short amount of time with such little knowledge of what was really happening and everything changing so often.”
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