Students’ Real-World Data Analysis Illustrates COVID’s Spread

The coronavirus pandemic has presented PSU students with extraordinary opportunities to apply their knowledge and skills to real-world problems. Teaching Lecturer Zak Brohinsky ’09 combined a wealth of publicly available COVID-19 data with his fall semester students’ eagerness to get involved and learn more about the issue.

“In projects like this, we can see how things that are currently affecting us have impacts on policy, government decision-making, enforcement, and how ‘man treats man,'” says Thomas Lavery ’22, a social science major.

Students in two sections of his Introduction to Geographic Information Systems (GIS) course made use of the highly detailed and continually updated information posted to the New York Times website. Brohinsky provided a link to the site and each student conducted similar applied research using that common database. Students chose regions of the country to analyze and compare in charts and maps that they created, which were ultimately presented with conclusions to their class as a whole in final presentations.

“Usually students in this course take on their own individual projects at the end of the semester,” says Brohinsky. “The comprehensiveness of the COVID data is what drew me to it as a potential project that all students could make use of. The data is so relevant to all of our lives right now.”

“This is a good example of topical applied research and a success story of our moving a course to a fully-online format,” adds Geography Program Chair Patrick May.

Students chose either a single state or 15 to 20 counties of a larger state in order to render visualizations of the raw data. Beginning with the virus’s American outbreak early in 2020 through semester’s end in November, their work illustrated how the spread of infection differed across the country – from the northeast to the west to the upper Midwest to the south. Comparison of the virus’s trajectory in southern California and New Jersey versus regions such as the Florida panhandle made clear the outbreak’s uneven progression.

“What was so exciting for me was seeing all of these different parts of the country come together,” says Brohinsky. “It was also exciting to see students light up with enthusiasm for this project.”

The raw data downloaded from the Times provided only the number of cases and number of deaths, and students added in population and other factors. The data was also joined to spatial data to indicate the specific counties that students focused on. After learning about a time slider function built into the ArcGIS software, students used it to create videos that illustrated the virus’s growth and spread over time. Microsoft Excel functions were employed as well to create detailed charts and graphs.

Ellie Hojeily ’22, a meteorology major, chose to analyze Southern California because she was interested in how the cases in Los Angeles County compared to those of surrounding counties as well as her classmates’ states. “I found that maps are an incredibly effective way of communicating the scope of the virus,” she says. “What truly shocked me was how the cases seemed to only go up and there was no ‘leveling of the curve,’ which was indicated by the rise of cases and transmission rates during the late summer and into the fall.”

Students saw how their illustrations put into perspective how quickly and how far the virus spread in such a short time. “In Southern California, three counties had COVID cases in January and by mid-February it was abundant across the entire region,” says Hojeily. “Gradient maps are incredibly easy for anyone to understand, which makes them extremely effective at communicating the scale of the virus to the American people.”

When not working at PSU, Brohinsky is a GIS analyst with Resilience Planning & Design, a firm with offices in Plymouth, NH, and Providence, RI, which is involved with municipal and conservation planning across the northeast. He’s one of the firm’s three professional staff members who teach part-time at PSU. In addition, Brohinsky has several former students who have become his peers in the conservation field. All of these real-world ties help to inform his interactions with current students.

“Real-world projects give students experience that sticks with us long-term,” says Hojeily. “In my own experience, whenever I’m doing a project that deals with real-world data or scenarios, I tend to work harder and retain everything I’ve learned in the process more than I would a fictional scenario. Even more so, projects like this are great for résumés as they demonstrate how capable one is of working with real-world data and using it in software.”