Misty Pacheco is the GOAT at teaching public health during a pandemic

In transitioning her health courses to online platforms, Misty Pacheco made the decision to incorporate the pandemic into her teaching. “My students got a lot more out of the public health and health promotion course because we were living through what we were learning.” One student says she’s the GOAT at prepping students for the current workforce.

By Kiaria Zoi Nakamura.

Misty Pacheco
Misty Pacheco

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly transformed previously conceived notions of education and its delivery options to students. Misty Pacheco, an associate professor of kinesiology and exercise sciences at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo who teaches public health, says covid has forced academia to come up with real, concrete strategies moving forward with instruction. Her own transition to online teaching has brought praise from her students.

In an anonymously completed survey completed by students last spring about the conversion to online instruction, one student added comments saying Pacheco was “organized and well-prepared—she consistently uses all forms of platforms, even in her face-to-face courses, so it was a very easy transition.”

The student continued, “Instructors like Misty who use technology on a normal basis are preparing students to be successful in the workforce that is occurring now and will occur as a result of the pandemic. SHE IS THE GOAT (greatest of all time).”

This is how you teach public health on your home island

Pacheco comes to the job with a doctorate in public health, and her expertise is tapped for many health-related initiatives on campus. She co-chaired the committee working on UH Hilo’s Blue Zones certification status, part of an initiative taking place in several states across the country to promote healthy living and long lives.

She also is a pioneer in creating the exploratory health sciences meta-major for which she was an advisor during its inaugural year. Additionally, she is a part of the UH Hilo COVID-19 task force.

Pacheco, who hails from Hawai‘i Island, says she takes her role very seriously as a public health educator at an indigenous-serving institution on her home island. She believes her role is not only to help students, but also have the community benefit as well. “I think we have an opportunity to do that in the classroom and in the courses that we teach.”

Pacheco describes her teaching style as using an equal mix of didactics. She lectures, but also asks her students to take what they have learned and put it into action, something she calls practice-based or problem-based learning. Having students undergo real-world scenarios and learn how their education has real-life applications, significantly adds to the value of the seemingly foreign information they get from textbooks and other reading materials, she says.

Evidently, these philosophies were further enhanced once the corona virus came to Hawai‘i, now requiring everyone to learn and teach remotely.

This is how you teach public health on your home island during a pandemic

Pacheco is currently on sabbatical, but was in the middle of teaching courses last semester upon hearing the news of mandatory distance learning. She says she was concerned that a lot of her students wouldn’t have the necessary resources to succeed in an online format. Not everyone had immediate access to things like a personal laptop or reliable internet access.

“Typically, many students will choose in-person courses for those reasons,” she says. “They actually don’t have the resources to take online courses or they don’t like learning online.”

These reservations forced Pacheco to really ask herself, “How am I going to make sure that all of my students are going to be able to succeed and learn?”

In addition to implementing the strategies that many other educators have employed, such as relying on Laulima (the long-established online teaching platform of the UH System), maintaining open lines of communication, and using Zoom, Pacheco navigated this new era of education by framing her curriculum around the current COVID-19 pandemic.

“The global pandemic that we’re going through, it’s a population, public health issue,” she says. “My content stayed the same, but what was nice, was that students could learn in real time. I was taking advantage of the pandemic and giving them real-life, real-time examples.”

COVID-19 metrics for each island. Aberage 99 new cases a day statewide. 12 for Hawaii County, 83 for Honolulu, 1 for Kauai, 3 for Maui County.
Misty Pacheco’s health promotion class practiced identifying and examining evidence-based data. Statewide metrics for Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, from the Hawai‘i Department of Health.

For instance, Pacheco’s health promotion class practiced identifying and examining evidence-based data. To relate this back to the pandemic, she asked her class, “If you see a headline in the newspaper or an Instagram post, do you take it for face value and just believe it?”

She expanded on this by encouraging her students to filter through information by asking themselves things like, “What’s wrong with this headline? This headline is going to make me panic, but should it? What more information do I need before I panic? What other things do I need to know before I panic? What kind of data can I search for before I panic?”

Reflecting on her decision to incorporate the pandemic into her teaching, Pacheco says, “Lucky for my students, they learned a lot about the pandemic, and at the same time, I think they got a lot more out of the public health and health promotion course because we were living through what we were learning.” She continues, “I took advantage of what was happening around us to focus our learning and to also calm a lot of my students at the very beginning of the pandemic.”

As an expert in her field, Pacheco is able to approach the growing pandemic from an objective point of view. And in doing so, she revitalized a sense of hope and instilled a feeling of calmness in her students because she trained them to stick to the facts.

“I think I was able to bring everything back to data, to science, which as scientists, as public health professionals, we always have to come back to,” she explains. “Trying to scare people with all these different tactics to create panic is so unnecessary and egregious.”

“I think my students, the majority of them, while the rest of the world was really panicking, a lot of them had a different perspective. They were looking at the pandemic as it should be, through a population lens, and not many people can do that.”


Story by Kiaria Zoi Nakamura, who is earning a bachelor of arts in English with a minor in performing arts and a certificate in educational studies at UH Hilo.