The purpose of BoSTEM’s Partner Spotlight series is to reveal the ways STEM Out-of-School Time (OST) programs throughout the city of Boston are rethinking education, and engaging with students. In this blog, we explore with HMS MEDscience their approach to STEM education during the pandemic.
“Dottie” calls into her Zoom tele–health appointment to find 8 doctors in training. She complains that she cannot catch her breath, she has a fever, and she gets dizzy when she stands up. Student doctors elicit a complete medical history, discuss her vital signs, start IV fluids, and develop a growing list of possible diagnoses. After presenting this patient to an “ER attending doctor,” they decide to order a chest X-ray and a positive influenza test reveals the problem. One student volunteers to break the news to the patient and offer a treatment plan.
These doctors in training aren’t emergency room residents or medical students. They’re high schoolers, and it’s only their third day of the HMS MEDscience program.
“One of the primary goals through United Way’s BoSTEM initiative is to support programs and educators providing high-quality STEM programming that inspires the next generation of STEM professionals,” said BoSTEM Director Joe Rosenbaum, “There is no secret sauce in these difficult times, but HMS MEDscience is an example of how dedicated educators have been responding to the needs and realities of our students.”
In 2005, co-founders Nancy Oriol, MD and James Gordon, MD, MPA designed a unique, experience-based class for high school and college students to learn about the human body. They offered it as a free, 40-hour summer immersion program to local students who, though interested in science, were attending schools that could not provide a variety of STEM programs. Students’ reflections about the course revealed stirring evidence that this type of learning had profound effects on both intellectual and moral development. Doctor’s Oriol and Gordon realized this course could be tailored to younger students and be a transformative experience. From its inception, the mission of what evolved into the HMS MEDscience program has been to address an “inspiration gap” in STEM education for all students.
Under the leadership of Executive Director Julie Joyal, RN, and prior to the pandemic, the HMS MEDscience course coupled traditional classroom teaching with a weekly trip to the Simulation Laboratory on the campus of Harvard Medical School. As students (and their parents and teachers) began talking about what and how they were learning, the demand for MEDscience grew. A summer program was designed with weekly courses that immediately had peak capacity and long waiting lists. Many local independent schools wanted this experience for their juniors and seniors, and by 2016, Boston Public Schools challenged MEDscience to double the number of classes for its students. Today, the HMS MEDscience curriculum is offered in over 50 schools and boasts nearly 7500 graduates.
By the end of March 2020, Harvard Medical School suspended in-person classes in order to flatten the COVID-19 curve, and the MEDscience simulation labs have been closed to students since then. Like so many educators who have embraced the word, “pivot,” MEDscience teachers had to do a bit more than become facile with the Zoom platform. Every clinical case was re-imagined as a simulated “tele-health” appointment and teachers learned how to be convincing patient actors. Once dependent on STAN, the automated mannequin, instructors now have a rotating collection of costumes, wigs, and props to create patients like “Dottie.” Their 2020 summer program was offered as a virtual course for the first time and still attracted 485 students for an intense, 5-day experience that they attended from home. TeleMed focused on clinical diagnosis as a way to teach seven body systems, and also included lunchtime Q&A sessions with professionals in STEM fields: pathology technicians who read slides from operating room specimens, EMT supervisors who save lives out in the community, trauma surgeons, ICU nurses, PhD candidates in the basic sciences, and a rotating group of Harvard Medical students who are honing their own teaching skills. One student commented, “I think the strengths of the teleMED program are numerous, but I think the interns/teachers, simulated activities, cohesive environment, and amazing guest speakers are the highlights.”
HMS MEDscience employs a unique pedagogy that encourages critical thinking, teamwork, and collaboration. On their first day of class, students are told that thinking out loud is preferred to raising their hands. The staff, who enjoyed this method of teaching inside the Simulation Lab, realized that a weekly meeting for professional development was crucial to learn new techniques to address the needs of students who are tethered to screens for hours a day and living through a pandemic. Classes always start with a mini mental “check in” with the students, as many are high school seniors navigating application stressors on top of the myriad challenges of being a teenager. There has been a more deliberate effort to connect with them now. Similarly, all teachers can relate to the problems that accompany logging into a “class” that is a grid of black, muted screens. Educators need more support now, too.
Today, MEDscience classes might begin with the students identifying with one of nine cat photos, from shy to playful to grumpy. Students are encouraged to make TikTok videos or draw a sidewalk chalk respiratory system as creative, asynchronous activities. “I loved the asynchronous activities we did outside and off the computer as well as the patient cases!” Said one student, “It was the best virtual learning experience I have had so far.”
Students are allowed to use their phones to access the vital signs of their patients on the SIMPL app, to take virtual polls during class on platforms like Kahoot and PearDeck, and even follow MEDscience on Instagram! With their phones always within reach, including it in a lesson was another opportunity to engage them, and possibly thwart losing their attention to it. MEDscience has brought in a number of college and medical student volunteers to help their less tech-savvy teachers navigate the Zoom whiteboard, technicalities of screen sharing, or just putting together a school-appropriate playlist so that the teachers could focus on course content instead of IT issues. Recently, the MEDscience teachers revitalized its class on the immune system to address the science behind COVID-19 infection, public health issues, and even the ethics of vaccination rollouts. For these students who are sacrificing so much of their “normal” childhood, this has been an opportunity for them to ask questions and share their thoughts and fears. A graduate from the program told us, “We were able to have awesome discussions… and we could tell that you all (the adults) really loved teaching us. You knew that sitting in a room being lectured at all day wasn’t the way…You really got to know us and allowed us to be our true nerdy selves.”
HMS MEDscience is always willing to partner with schools that want a program like this for their students. Educators are encouraged to contact Executive Director, Julie Joyal (firstname.lastname@example.org), for more information about this unique program and how it continues to support and train its teachers to connect with their students. Only widespread vaccinations, effective herd immunity, or a miracle drug would allow a complete return to traditional, classroom teaching, and even then, a virtual option for school is likely to remain. Programs like HMS MEDscience have demonstrated that creating a brilliant online course for students is not enough: teachers need adequate professional development and support to deliver it.
HMS MEDScience is a member of United Way of Massachusetts Bay BoSTEM Initiative. For more information on BoSTEM visit our website, or contact Joe Rosenbaum at email@example.com.