Innovative crash course immerses students in public health

Unique master of public health course, delivered online due to COVID-19, introduces students to public health through a disaster management scenario.

Public health aims to promote, protect, maintain and improve the health of communities and populations. It crosses multiple fields of study such as health, social and human sciences to touch every aspect of our lives on a daily basis. This concept can be daunting for new School of Public Health students. An innovative course, SPH 530 This is Public Health, is an eight-day intensive course that brings master of public health (MPH) students up to speed quickly on these concepts. 

“SPH 530 was developed to introduce students to the concepts that underlie public health, through working in teams to manage an emerging disaster scenario,” said Ruth Wolfe, associate dean of professional programs, School of Public Health. “It was created to introduce core public health knowledge and skills that subsequent courses build upon, and to highlight the real-world impacts of public health.”

The course, originally developed by the School of Public Health’s James Talbot, adjunct professor,  and Stephanie Montesanti, associate professor is designed to unfold under the time pressure of managing a realistic disaster scenario. Exploring fundamental concepts, SPH 530 introduces future public health practitioners to the realities of public health during the first week of their master’s program. 

With the pivot to virtual learning in 2020, MPH students like Nidhi Gautam and Daniela Palazzo, had the unparalleled opportunity to build crucial relationships needed to solve public health challenges in SPH 530, while being worlds apart.

“It was one of the best courses because it showed what public health really is and what it [could] look like when we graduate,” shared Gautam, an MPH student taking the course from Nepal.

“SPH 530 was a challenging and reflective course that gave us an overview of what we can expect in public health and what kind of issues we will deal with,” said Palazzo, a distance MPH student. “In addition to practicing comprehensive time management, we were simultaneously using our analytical, organizational, critical thinking and problem-solving skills. There was kind of an adrenaline rush in having to organize a final product by 4:30 p.m. [each day].”

The course also serves as an orientation and allows new students to connect with each other, building trust and support within the cohort. In previous years, students have attended the course on campus. With most university courses being delivered online in 2020 due to the pandemic, instructors had to work to adapt the course quickly over the summer to ensure robust teaching opportunities and learning outcomes using Zoom. 

“This is the largest MPH cohort we have ever had. Studying virtually from around the world provided an added experience of learning that we might not normally have,” said Wolfe. “Teamwork is a foundational public health competency underlying the course. Due to differences in time zones, students came together to support each other through the course and the pandemic at large beyond the classroom, which was unique.”

According to Norman Neumann, professor and vice-dean of the School of Public Health, the virtual pivot required students to collaborate in a meaningful way virtually, much like they will need to in their future careers. “Students naturally developed relationships within their teams and worked to help each other. Team dynamics were stressed, and there was a real focus on trust and acting ethically,” said Neumann. “These were unanticipated outcomes, watching students apply in real time the very things we’ve been teaching them about teamwork.”

After a “great week of learning,” Gautum noted that one of her biggest takeaways was the importance of diversity and how it can help bring new ideas and opinions to the table. “When we look at the problem from only one side, it won’t make sense and it won’t help everyone. When we get everyone’s input, I think it makes our work more valuable and more effective.” 

SPH 530 This is Public Health, is the first course of the MPH degree program, following the School’s new MPH core curriculum, launched in Fall 2018. The curriculum is designed to maximize practice readiness through integrating experiential learning within and beyond the classroom. The Canadian College of Health Leaders has recognized the MPH core curriculum for advanced standing in their Certified Health Executive program. 

Thanks to a program development grant from the University of Alberta Office of the Provost and Vice-President (Academic), the School has been fortunate to be able to hire an educational instructional design specialist to build the faculty’s capacity for innovative program delivery. The timing couldn’t have been better as the School worked to move all its courses online during an unprecedented year of the pandemic.


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