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What a crisis can teach us“We’ve got a situation but we know how to handle it”

Anouk Kreuger
Marc van Maris
Aleksandra Zaykova


The VU honours programme offers a wide range of courses, from social and neural sciences to urban sciences and data-analytics. Nevertheless, the BETA-discipline is underrepresented. For this reason, we created an honours course that has the required multi-disciplinary characteristics but the main topic is BETA-related. To provide a suitable honours course, the topics include world-wide problems that can be seen from the view of biomedical sciences, psychology and economics. The teachers include researchers, PHD students and organizations that are experts in their field and therefore it will be an inspiring programme with high quality. The students must come up with creative solutions during the programme and they can use the study material in their daily life. So, next time if there is an urgent situation, you know how to handle it.

Honours proposal

Title: What a crisis can teach us

Surviving environmental pandemics, health problems via different perspectives. Ten weeks crash course about causing, handling and preventing crises. focusing on the biomedical, psychological and economical aspects teached by experts in their fields.


Minimum/maximum number of students  25
Academic year  2021 / 2022
Semester  01
Period  02 & 03
Day(s)  Tue, Thurs
Time  18:00-21:00
Number of meetings  17
Dates  Oct-Dec
Location  online


Course coordinator 

6 EC 

Until further notice

Hosting VU faculty  Until further notice


The workgroups are organized by the honors course coordinator 


Health pandemics: 

  • Biomedical sciences: Juulke Steuten, Esther de Boer (researchers in the group of prof Marieke van Ham) 
  • Psychology: Aura Timen 
  • Economics: Pieter Gautier* 

Environmental crisis: 

  • Biomedical sciences: Micropia/ARTIS 
  • Psychology: Paul van Lange*, Linda Steg* 
  • Economics: Pieter Gautier* 

* Response pending

Criteria: Excellent researchers, different disciplines, international elements (such as guest lecturer)


Coordination and cohesion of the lectures: how will the various lectures and lecturers be coordinated? How will the cohesion between the lectures be guarded?

The course consists of four weeks of health pandemics, four weeks of environmental crisis and a symposium week. Throughout the subtopics, information is given in the first lecture and this is followed by a workgroup. In the lecture, experts talk about their specialism regarding the subtopic. The students can read the content at home and debate in class with the experts and fellow students. The workgroups are included to work on projects and actively participate during the course.

Main course elements and concepts: 

  • Multidisciplinary: The lectures cover a diverse range of perspectives (biomedical sciences, economics, and psychology) regarding the two subtopics (health pandemics and environmental crisis).
  • Student orientated: In the lectures and workgroups, the students are stimulated to be involved and to actively participate via discussions.

Criteria: Interdisciplinary, Related VU research profile

Course content:

Introduction on what health pandemics can teach us: 

Biomedical sciences – Nature is powerful: 

Humans often think they have built the world and that we therefore also rule the world. However, nature strikes back with natural disasters like earthquakes but also with such tiny viruses. 

Lecture: How does such a virus work and how can we fight it? 

Psychology – How do we react to pandemics?: 

In the case of health pandemics, heroes arise and not necessarily the spiderman kind of hero, but the hero that volunteers to do the groceries for elderly or the neighbor that really listens to you. People discover what really matters to them and what they took for granted such as going out, going exercising, and hanging out with friends/family. 

Lecture: Mental health and psychological responses to the pandemic. 

Economics – Everyone is dependent: 

Hoarding toilet paper that is made in Germany, wearing a face mask that is made in China, eating the food that is produced with products from all around the world. This has led to the discovery that humans are not the independent persons we thought we were. Could this lead to a shift in production methods, so less import and more in-land production? 

Lecture: How can one get the best out of the economy? 

Introduction on what environmental pandemics can teach us: 

The environmental crises that today’s world is facing are not only an immense challenge for humanity, but also an opportunity for us to identify and fix the ineffective structures and habits that we have as a society. The unique side of such big crises is that they spread across fields, economic layers, individual differences and bring to the test the strategies we have developed to deal with the world. They present a chance to evaluate and improve ourselves. That is why we want to focus this honors course on the discoveries that have been made by looking at environmental crises through the loops of 3 different fields- biomedical sciences, psychology, and economics. 

Biomedical sciences: 

Microbes are very important as we talk about the environment and the impact on our daily life. For example, microbes are necessary to degrade waste and due to these organisms, our sandwich becomes molded. Microorganisms do not only have a negative effect on our lives, but they can be used as biocontrol organisms and ecosystem services suppliers. Climate Change can be reduced by eating everything we buy (no waste) but can it also be reduced via the use of such microbes? 

Lecture: What is the function of microbes and how can we use them?


As human beings we are highly motivated to avoid threats. In the past years we have been notified and warned about several dangers with very high reaching impacts. News about plastic pollution, scientific reports from the United Nations on global warming and holes in the ozone layer and multiple other threats have been pointed out to us, yet society fails to act on these environmental crises. At first sight it seems illogical, but when we take a closer look at the patterns of how people think about the environmental crisis, we find group pressure, short term benefit orientation, difficulty to relate to facts and figures, cultural differences… 

Lecture: What behavior patterns have the environmental crisis revealed? / How can we reach people in a better way? 


When we think about plastic pollution or climate change, economics is not the first thing that pops into our mind. However, these issues have outlined certain gaps in the economic structure of the world. The dependence on plastic of big companies to keep costs low, the inefficiency of the fossil fuel market and many more. The crises have also opened new niches in business such as upcycled goods, vegan products, renewable energy etc. 

Lecture: How have environmental crises changed the economy and how can we make more resilient business structures? 

Course objective: attainment level and learning outcomes 

The COVID pandemic showed the vulnerabilities of today’s society against outside forces. We have seen the fundamental importance of our health, well-working supply chains, partnerships, and corporations to counter further outbreaks of the Coronavirus better, now that we have faced the consequences that occur when these things are not in order. We have learned that no matter the level of one’s wealth, money means nothing anymore when someone’s life is in danger. It is not the question of whether the next crisis will occur but when it will occur. When it does, the world should be well prepared by combining forces and knowledge from different expertise fields. Solutions to future crises can be found in the past by analyzing past processes and learning from mistakes. In this course, students will do exactly that; they will see past crises through the perspective of biomedical sciences, psychology, and economics, and will learn how to combine this knowledge later on to create solutions to past mistakes.

Teaching methods and working formats: 

Expert seminars: 

Expert sessions are guided by a multidisciplinary panel of guest lecturers presenting cutting-edge research, and practitioners and teachers demonstrating their innovative ideas through engagement with various new learning techniques, tools and resources.

Workshop seminars: 

The workshops will deploy a wide range of knowledge based on the different disciplines (i.e. biomedical sciences, psychology, economics) introduced during the expert seminars to engage participants in individual as well as collaborative problem-solving and reflection on the concerning themes. Within the workshops, the course coordinators will act as facilitators by assisting the students and stimulating peer-to-peer feedback to understand problems in a hands-on way, and by coaching them in attaining their personal and group-based goals. 

Criteria: Extensive contact between student and lecturer, Peer interaction, General Academic skills

Relevance of the course: 

Having seen how the current corona pandemic completely changed our lifestyles and left many people without jobs, with poor mental health, lack of social contact and missed opportunities, we can acknowledge the importance of resilient structures in society. Despite the hundreds years of history of handling crises, such as plagues, Ebola, wars, terrorist attacks, the world seems to be caught by surprise with every new one. 

While we are busy dealing with the current crises at hand, we are ignoring the knowledge that previous disasters have provided us with. If we as a society are equipped to understand our responses to crises in the past and recognize the inefficient societal structures that they have helped us reveal, we can minimize the impact of future crises or even stop them before they transition into major problems for society. 

During “What can we learn from a crisis”, students with different academic backgrounds will come together to analyse past responses to crises and together with experts and peers will try to evaluate them, debate and see their positive and negative sides and look for ways to improve them. Since the course covers major current trends in society students will have a personal view on the issues discussed and the knowledge obtained will contribute to their personal development and critical thinking ability. 

Criteria: Social relevance, Scientific relevance, Relevant for VU identity (responsible, open and personally engaged)

Study materials:

Basic virology – what is a virus? 

  • Corum, J., & Zimmer, C. (2020). How coronavirus hijacks your cells. The New York Times. ur-cells.html
  • V’kovski, P., Kratzel, A., Steiner, S., Stalder, H., & Thiel, V. (2020). Coronavirus biology and replication: implications for SARS-CoV-2. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 1-16. 

How do viruses mutate, spread and cause pandemics? 

  • Plowright, R. K., Parrish, C. R., McCallum, H., Hudson, P. J., Ko, A. I., Graham, A. L., & Lloyd-Smith, J. O. (2017). Pathways to zoonotic spillover. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 15(8), 502-510. 
  • Corum, J., & Zimmer, C. (2021). Coronavirus Variants and Mutations. The New York Times. New York, NY.

Non-pharmaceutical interventions 

  • Brauner, J. M., Mindermann, S., Sharma, M., Johnston, D., Salvatier, J., Gavenčiak, T., … & Kulveit, J. (2021). Inferring the effectiveness of government interventions against COVID-19. Science, 371(6531).
  • Pegg, D. (2020). Covid-19: Did the UK government prepare for the wrong kind of pandemic. The Guardian, 21. -the-wrong-kind-of-pandemic 


  • Knipe, D. M., Levy, O., Fitzgerald, K. A., & Mühlberger, E. (2020). Ensuring vaccine safety. Science, 370(6522), 1274-1275. 
  • Dolgin, E. (2021). How COVID unlocked the power of RNA vaccines. Nature, 189-191. 
  • Corum, J., & Zimmer, C. (2021). How nine Covid-19 vaccines work. The New York Times. New York, NY.

Psychological responses to pandemics 

  • Bavel, J.J.V., Baicker, K., Boggio, P.S. et al. Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response. Nat Hum Behav 4, 460–471 (2020).
  • Resilience in a pandemic ic 
  • “How to be your best self in times of crisis” (TED talk) 

The role of psychology in environmental crises 

  • Clayton, S., Devine-Wright, P., Swim, J., Bonnes, M., Steg, L., Whitmarsh, L., & Carrico, A. (2016). Expanding the role for psychology in addressing environmental challenges. American Psychologist, 71(3), 199–215. 
  • Van Lange PAM, Joireman J, Milinski M. Climate Change: What Psychology Can Offer in Terms of Insights and Solutions. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 2018 Aug;27(4):269-274. doi: 10.1177/0963721417753945. Epub 2018 Jul 12. PMID: 30166778; PMCID: PMC6099976. 
  • Why do we ignore obvious problems – and how to act on them _how_to_act_on_them

Crises through an economical perspective 

  • Gates, B., & Anderson, C. (n.d.). How the pandemic will shape the near future. TED Talks.Retrieved.April.11,.2021,from e/transcript 
  • Gates, B. (n.d.). Innovating to zero! TED Talks. Retrieved May 11, 2021, from
  • Mazzucato, M., & Giussani, B. (2020, July 7). The COVID-19 crisis is a chance to do capitalism differently. TED Talks. do_capitalism_differently
  • Mulgan, G. (2009, September 2). Post-crash, investing in a better world. TED Talks.
  • Gates, B., Anderson, C., & Rodgers, W. P. (2020, March 25). How we must respond to the coronavirus pandemic. TED Talks.

Assessment method(s):

Students are evaluated based on a written individual essay (50%), group presentation with poster (40%) and their participation in class discussions (10%). 

Group presentation and individual essay : 

Students will be asked to work in teams to analyze different processes implemented in past crises and design a strategy to tackle current crises or deal with global issues before they develop into crises. Then they will present their ideas as a group and write individual essays (4000-5000 words) on the same topic. The subject is chosen by the student and will be approved by the course coördinator. 

Criteria: Both knowledge and academic skills, also point out how these several methods add up to the final score (proportions in percentages)

Study load and composition

Honors course of 6 ECTS (6 x 28 hours = 168 hours):

Engaging lectures  17 x 2.5 hours 42.5 hours

Preparation lectures 

– Scientific papers 

– Literature

72.5 hours

29 x 2.5 hours 

Individual essay  35 hours 35 hours
Presentation  8 hours 8 hours
Testing  10 10 hours