A recent article by Dr. Karin B. Yeatts, research assistant professor of epidemiology at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, describes the success of an introductory public health course for undergraduates that uses principles of active learning to help students experience public health practice and integrate concepts with their assignments.
The paper appeared in a special undergraduate public health education issue of Frontiers in Public Health, available online December 23, 2014.
Given a reported 750 percent increase in undergraduate degree conferrals in public health between 1992 and 2012, the need for introductory public health courses is clear. The assignments Dr. Yeatts developed for the class are intended to be of interest to institutions planning to offer an undergraduate public health major.
“Active learning,” instructional methodology that engages students in the process of learning rather than receiving information passively from an instructor, has been shown to be better learning environment for engineering, mathematics and natural sciences. Team learning in pharmacy and nursing has shown increased levels of enhanced critical thinking, and in public health, reflective journals and blogging have been among the activities that increase students’ understanding and enrich learning.
Individuals in Dr. Yeatts’ course were provided with opportunities to apply and integrate concepts that resulted in improved inquiry, analysis, creative and critical thinking, oral and written communication, and problem-solving, among other skills. The course included a series of team-based activities, as well as an experiential project. In the latter component of the course, students visited a public health organization and then used their experience to inform a final project that examined a public health intervention.
“Students were introduced to a wide range of different disciplines and topics within the field, including environmental science, nutrition, health behavior, maternal and child health, biostatistics, epidemiology, and health policy,” Dr. Yeatts said. “As the course progressed, students discussed protecting the public’s health from different aspects, including behavioral education, environment and policy.”
Through a tool called Gapminder, students were able to contrast population and biomedical perspectives on health – and were able to link health outcomes (e.g., infant mortality) with historic events such as drought, famine or war.
Other course elements include a hands-on introduction to 1) creative and comparative systems of data collection, 2) the use of social media to advance healthy behaviors, 3) the study of water contamination (through microbial sampling in various water sources), 4) the health care system, by looking at challenges for the sick and elderly in rural North Carolina counties and studying benefits and challenges of the Affordable Care Act, and 5) local public-health-related organizations and programs in the community.