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KU Medical Center, The University of Kansas Health System and Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools, combine forces to help high school students learn about careers in health care

May 04, 2018

By Greg Peters

Health Science Academy

The University of Kansas Medical Center has joined forces with The University of Kansas Health System and the Kansas City, Kansas, Public Schools (USD 500) in launching a program designed to help students who are traditionally under-represented in health care fields learn about careers beyond the traditional medical roles of physicians and nurses.

On alternating days during the spring semester, students from F.L. Schlagle and J.C. Harmon high schools have been coming to the KU Medical Center campus for their Health Science III classes, which are part of the Health Science Academies that have been established as part of the curriculum in some of the Unified School District 500 schools. As part of the process, students have the opportunity to learn from world-class experts, the university gets to show off many of its academic departments, and the hospital system introduces students to health-care fields they might not otherwise have thought of on their own, such as laboratory science or sports medicine.

"The ultimate goal of this program is to increase the number of students from under-represented backgrounds who are involved in health science," said project co-investigator Maria Alonso-Luaces, Ph.D., who also is the director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion within the KU School of Medicine. "We would like to have students get excited about careers in health and have a greater understanding that health careers aren't limited to being doctors and nurses.

"The program also empowers the students by showing them that the work they do in class can help change their community."

"Providing a 'behind the scenes' view of the hospital and medical center helps to humanize a very complex and intimidating environment," said Jeff Novorr, vice president of support services for The University of Kansas Health System. "The opportunity for high school students to engage with hospital and medical center staff and faculty in our facilities shows them how we work together and with the community beyond what could be demonstrated in a classroom."

Origin of the Academy
The concept of conducting the Health Science Academy at KU Medical Center evolved out of a program launched earlier known as Teachers and Students for Community-Oriented Research and Education (T-SCORE), which is supported by a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health. T-SCORE's goal is to empower classroom teachers to create engaging health science lessons that are relevant to the community where their school resides.

The idea to bring the Health Science III classes to KU Medical Center came about from discussions between Alonso-Luaces, who is part of T-SCORE's administration, and Tim Murrell, Ed.D., USD 500 coordinator for career and technical education programs. The teachers told the two that they are always looking for projects and authentic experiences for the Health Science Academy, so Alonso-Luaces and Murrell came up with the idea to bring the students to KU Medical Center so they can have direct contact with people in health care, whether it's research, clinical care or support services.

"A career in medicine for any student is a long shot," said Alonso-Luaces. "We're trying to provide them with a way into a profession that they can access right out of high school, with an undergraduate degree, or by completing a certificate program. For some it may just be an intermediate step, but for others it can be the start of a great career."

Every week, about 20 students from each school attend the classes on alternating days at KU Medical Center. The curriculum is broken down into seven units, which are taught by volunteers from a variety of disciplines from both the university and the health system. The units include hidden careers in health care; community-based research; exploring nursing careers; health science laboratory research; CPR certification; and a unit designed specifically for each school.

"This new format has created an atmosphere that engages students and encourages their participation in health science," said LeAnne Richardson, who is in charge of the class from Schlagle. "Also, by the classes taking place outside the regular classroom, it makes it easier to teach my students employability skills based on real-life experiences."

By bringing students to the medical center campus, students also get used to the idea of being a part of a large campus with academics at all levels - from medical students to star researchers. They might not have had this opportunity otherwise, or at least not until much later. Now the students have the experience of navigating one of the community's largest education and health care institutions.

In their DNA
On one particular winter Tuesday morning, a classroom in the Hemenway Building was abuzz with teen spirit as students from Richardson's class extracted samples of their own DNA under the watchful tutelage off Irfan Saadi, Ph.D., associate professor of anatomy and cell biology in the School of Medicine. At the end of the class, the students were able to take home small plastic vials filled with their own DNA. Many of the students hung the vials from strings and wore them around their necks. For the students, it was a way to blend some fun with their scientific curiosity.

"I liked the part where I actually got to see the particles of DNA from my mouth," said student Amiya King. "It's weird but cool."

"I like the fact that we were actually experimenting and doing scientific things like finding out new information about our DNA and what makes up our genes," said Elijah Rush.

"I think it is critical that our high school students think big and set lofty goals for themselves," Saadi said. "The United States education system, to a large extent, excels at this, which is why it leads the world in innovation. However, I think our system at times fails to achieve this in schools in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods.  That is what I like about T-SCORE - it is helping improve the curricula directly at these schools."

Just the beginning
To cap off the semester, students spent time creating portfolios and cover letters, practicing job interview and researching job opportunities. They presented their work in a year-end celebration in early May on the KU Medical center campus.

"We hope this is a valuable and mutually beneficial partnership," said Alonso-Luaces. "When we met with the health system, we were a little surprised they were so excited, but I have learned that they have a little bit of a challenge recruiting entry-level positions. These can be stepping stones to a health career."

Through hands-on experiences in the Health Science Academy, students were also able to learn about how different careers function together within a health care system, ultimately helping them to better understand how the units work together.

"Careers in health care are often perceived as being clinical; however, we require virtually every trade skill in order for our health system to function safely and efficiently," said Novorr. "The Health Science Academy allowed the participating students an inside view of direct patient care positions as well as non-clinical support roles, and how all of the roles work together to support patient care."

The organizers of the joint venture are already looking to the future with ideas for expanding the program. Discussions are ongoing about plans to add Wyandotte High School and possibly Washington High School as soon as fall semester. They also are talking about converting the Health Science IV class into a course where students take on internships or conduct industry-approved projects.

"One of the fun things now about T-SCORE is identifying health problems within the community and finding viable solutions after doing some research," Alonso-Luaces said. "We're looking at turning the Health Science IV class into something like a capstone course. If we do that, we're going to have to find partners at the medical center and the health system. A lot of kids will be looking for mentors who can provide them with feedback and guidance for their research."

The addition of the capstone class concept seems to be coming of age at an ideal time with the school district moving into what it calls the Diploma+ program to graduate. The program requires students to complete the required coursework plus earn one of seven endorsements. One of those endorsements just happens to be the completion of a qualified internship or industry-approved project. The proposed capstone concept would seem to dovetail perfectly into the Health Science Academy plan, making it a win-win for all involved.

Last modified: Jul 26, 2018