The microbial world is nothing to fear for non-science majors in summer term course Microbiology 100

Last year, Blythe Callahan, a third-year history and economics undergrad at UW–Madison, needed to earn a science credit required for her degree. She also wanted to study abroad for a year, and it seemed like a Summer Term course could help her stay on track. One online option felt “non-intimidating” to her: Microbiology 100 The Microbial World.

“It feels like a science course taught for those who don’t always naturally ‘get’ science. It fit me well,” says Callahan from London, where she is studying abroad for a full year.

Microbiology 100 students participate in the online Canvas course. Photo by Michael P. King

Microbio 100 is designed with non-science majors in mind. The course takes students through a broad survey of the role bacteria and viruses play in the foods we eat, the products we use, and diseases that impact our health. The class dates back many years, although it was revived in 2018 for online-only delivery through Canvas, a cloud-based learning management system. Each summer, students enroll and log-on from home, whether that’s in Wisconsin, across the country, or around the world.

“There are people around the world that are looking for a microbiology class,” says instructor Timothy Paustian BS’85, PhD’89, a distinguished teaching professor in the Department of Bacteriology. “I have students in China, India, Europe, and South America who take this class because it’s online, and they have perspectives that are very interesting and fun.”

Callahan, who is from Chicago, most appreciated how the class taught her to research and write about topics she was less comfortable with. She’s considering law school and a career in disability law or criminal defense and sees herself applying those skills in the future.

“I liked the course more than I expected,” she says. “I went into it just thinking of it as a way to [meet] requirements, but I actually enjoyed challenging myself in a new field. It really strengthened my writing skills.”

Misinformation is as old as science itself, though the current era is rife with deception. So Paustian dedicates one week to it — using topics such as the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and raw (unpasteurized) milk — to help students strengthen their ability to evaluate and understand sometimes confusing scientific information.

“It’s absolutely critical that, as a citizen of this world, you are good at finding the truth, and finding the frauds,” Paustian says in the lecture.

Students learn about disease-causing pathogens, discuss the ones they’ve encountered themselves, and then learn about the human immune system. And with the COVID-19 pandemic permeating nearly every facet of life for the last two years, Paustian has been able to insert a weeklong unit on SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease.

But perhaps most surprising to Microbio 100 students are the units focused on the benefits — and the necessity — of microbes. That’s driven home through lessons and discussions about microbial partnerships (when plants and animals survive or thrive due to the presence of microbes) and enzymes.

“That’s one that really surprises them,” says Paustian. “They have no idea how much of modern life depends on microbial enzymes.”

From detergents to food ingredients to medical treatments for heart attacks, diabetes, and lactose intolerance, students come to realize how enzymes are doing vital work nearly everywhere they look. And that’s just the outcome Paustian hopes for.

“I want them to have a real appreciation of how many ways microbiology and the science of microbiology impacts their lives,” he says. “Just as I’m a strong proponent that people in technical fields or the research sciences need humanities to understand the world, I also think people in the humanities need to be engaged in understanding science and the scientific process.”