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Miami professor changing usual class to help others during coronavirus

Posted at 9:46 PM, Apr 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-27 12:33:17-04

Dennis Cheatham’s Experience Design course wasn’t created in response to COVID-19, but by happenstance it addresses the enforced stay-at-home theme very neatly.

An Assistant Professor of Communication Design at Miami University, Cheatham created the course to identify and satisfy basic human emotional needs throughout the course of a day, implying that once you find a design that works, it can apply to every day and thus make your life better. This is his third year teaching the course, and since his students are graduate students from all over the country, it was already online.

“(The course) wasn’t created for the pandemic, but our final project this year will address it,” Cheatham said. “Students picked their own topics and some are working in groups. One group is working on an app that will tell people when to go to the grocery store so they won’t interact with people who are immunocompromised. One woman has a special-needs child, so she’s looking at telemedicine, how you can get physical therapy in the home when you can’t get to a hospital.

“Pets are beneficial for emotional health, so another group is finding animal adoption resources when you can’t go to a shelter.”

In the meantime, the course curriculum is essentially unchanged. Some pieces of the COVID-19 final project will remain relevant after the pandemic is over.

“The grocery shopping app can be used during flu season, too,” Cheatham said.

As with the previous two years, the course breaks down individual daily experiences into “finite aspects,” the seemingly trivial things one hardly notices but can affect one’s mood for an entire day.

“Every day is a story,” Cheatham said. “You wake up, you get coffee, you go to the office. The whole day is an arc, and how that arc goes can depend on design. A good cup of coffee that has your favorite flavor, for instance, can affect the way you greet your partner, the way you write an email. It’s about understanding human experience and what makes people do what they do.

“If we understand intent and attitude, you can help people feel better about certain activities. Like if someone has an attitude (right now, especially) of not wanting to exercise at home, you can get other people involved and cycle together, at a distance.”

Even though Cheatham and his students don’t typically see each other in person, the class has become a source of connection during the pandemic.

“A few students wanted to do weekly sessions, where we just chat and see each other,” he said. “We were supposed to go to Montreal as a group, but that was canceled. So, we get together and talk about the challenges, especially those who have children, of trying to turn your home into a workplace and a schoolhouse, or just how exciting it would be to go to a coffee shop.”

When Cheatham speaks with colleagues, he hears similar reports of depression brought on by the isolation, but insisted on filling what he called “buckets of hope.”

“There’s a loss of hope, a lot of people having trouble getting out of bed,” he said. “Those who are coping well are those who have some internal perspective, a sense of ‘at least I have this…,’ people who are able to get out and take a walk during the day, and remember that one day this will end.”

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