Posted on September 1, 2020 by Amanda Cerreto

The COVID-19 pandemic is reshaping lifestyles, schooling and research—and students from the UTSA Honors College will have a chance to dive into the rich yet complex data on the virus that has been mounting for Bexar County and other places. Kara Joyner, department chair and professor in the Department of Demography, has developed a course for undergraduate students that will use the pandemic as a laboratory for research.

Prior to joining UTSA, Joyner knew there was great potential for a COVID-19 related course. In her previous position at Bowling Green State University, Joyner had conducted a survey of students in her demography course about their interest in working on a COVID-19 project and they seized the opportunity.

"I was struck by how engaged students were in the project and how well they worked together, despite their anxiety and physical isolation," Joyner said. "This made me realize the COVID-19 pandemic offers a great laboratory for learning and applying demographic methods."

When she joined the UTSA College for Health, Community and Policy faculty, she found a home for the course as part of UTSA's Honors College curriculum.

“The COVID-19 pandemic offers a great laboratory for learning and applying demographic methods.”

Demographers have gravitated toward COVID-19 data because they have the tools to locate hot spots for the virus, identify groups that are more exposed and vulnerable to it, and track its change over time.

The course will expose students to evidence from the “natural experiments” that were created when states and counties began implementing social distance measures in March and April of 2020. These experiments have allowed researchers to infer the causal effects of these measures on COVID-19 cases.

“News stories have suggested that young adults were driving the surge in COVID-19 cases in states like Texas this summer,” Joyner said. “Now stories are intensely focused on the spread of COVID-19 cases at different colleges and universities across the country.”

In the course students will have the opportunity to observe what is happening around them using a scientific lens.

The course currently has over a dozen students enrolled and covers research from multiple disciplines taking place across the world on the ever-changing virus. It covers topics that will help students navigate the sea of data on COVID-19.

“For instance, it will address why charts on change in the number of daily confirmed COVID-19 cases over time present estimates based on the natural logarithm of cases,” Joyner said. “It will also cover some common pitfalls in interpreting COVID-19 data and statistics.”

Other topics include how COVID-19 compares to the Spanish flu; how various types of COVID-19 rates, such as the case fatality rates, are calculated; how COVID-19 rates differ by age, gender and race/ethnicity; the role of demographic composition (for example, age structure) in explaining variation in rates across counties, states and countries; the effect of social distancing policies on the rate at which COVID-19 cases are changing; and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on life expectancy, fertility, migration and unemployment.

Joyner has been teaching courses on demographic methods for almost two decades and has enjoyed seeing the surge in interest.

“I myself was not sure exactly what demography was when I entered a doctoral program in sociology and out of curiosity ended up taking an Introduction to Population course in my first semester,” she said. “I have heard scholars from the Baby Boom generation say that concerns about population growth in the 1960s helped attract top young scholars to the field of population science.”

The current pandemic, Joyner said, could spark a similar interest in demography for Generation Z.

While demography of COVID-19 is an important course in the current climate of the pandemic, Joyner knows that its effects will reach far beyond the end of the virus.

“Students will be able to expand their methodological tool kit to include methods that are widely used in research and industry,” she said. “They will also learn the steps involved in conducting a research project, which include identifying a research question that can be addressed with existing data, conducting a review of the literature on the topic, formulating a central research hypothesis, compiling and analyzing data, drafting a research brief with findings and recommendations, and presenting findings from the brief to a general audience.”

Research projects will be collaborative, and as such, students will continue to refine their skills working with others virtually.

“Ultimately,” Joyner said, “students will not only gain a better understand of the COVID-19 pandemic surrounding them but also cultivate some skills that can improve their career prospects.”

This article originally appeared in UTSA Today.

⇒ Discover research taking place in the Department of Demography at UTSA .

— Amanda Cerreto