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Dartmouth Kids Aim To Make A Difference With Local Nonprofits In New Public Health Class

Oct 30, 2015 02:56PM ● Published by Victoria Pipas

What is public health, and how does my personal health contribute to the health of the greater community? These questions are multidimensional, politically charged, and sometimes even emotional. Yet Dartmouth students enrolled in Introduction to Public Health are seeking to answer these and other difficult questions in the semester-long course this fall. Under the instruction of Dr. Catherine Pipas, students in this class, which was inaugurated last year, engage in personal and community-based health improvement projects, walking the walk, so to speak, of the lessons they are taught in lectures. As the course vision states, “Healthy Students Contributing to Healthy Communities” is both an ambitious and sustainable model for active learning in the sphere of public health.

In 2014, Dr. Pipas, a professor at Geisel School of Medicine, was approached by faculty and undergraduate students at Dartmouth College who proposed the idea of a much-needed public health course for undergraduates. Medical students or students pursuing a masters degree in public health have ample access to public health instruction, but undergraduates considering such careers felt there was a gap in the public health course offerings; that is, there was no such course. Dr. Pipas composed a Curriculum Advisory Committee to design a course that would meet the needs of the students and the community. This was an interdisciplinary group of faculty, community members, and students. Students expressed their wish to “get off the Green, to understand and contribute to the needs of the broader community.”

The course that evolved includes two public-health improvement projects to be undertaken throughout the course of the semester in conjunction with lectures by Dr. Pipas and guest lecturers that range in subject from the basic principles of health care to epidemiology, disease prevention, and strategic planning. Lecturers have included the New Hampshire director of the Department of Health and Human Services, the US Global AIDS ambassador, the director of WISE, the director of Dartmouth’s Wellness Program, the director of Indian Health Services, and other distinguished speakers.

The students’ first large project of the semester is their Personal Health Improvement Project, or PHIP. The PHIP allows students to apply motivational interviewing and improvement processes to themselves. They complete a family history and review evidence-based preventive guidelines in order to prioritize one personal health goal. Over the first half of the semester, the students monitor and evaluate their success or struggle in meeting their goal on a day-to-day basis. Some students aim to get more sleep and use homework time more efficiently; others aim to add ten minutes of mindfulness to their day to reduce stress. One student observed the amount of time she was sedentary each day, and then restructured her study places so that she could study on her feet. Another added time for painting back into her day. These projects seem simple enough, but they provide students with the framework to maintain and improve their personal health for the rest of their lives, one step at a time.

The second project for the semester is the Community Health Improvement Project, or CHIP. The CHIP project begins before the semester starts, when Dr. Pipas and her teaching assistants (this year, all graduates of Intro to Public Health 2014) visit the sites and meet with community organization leaders to identify potential projects for the students to spearhead as teams in the coming semester. Organizations partnered with last year are the Upper Valley Haven, Upper Valley Trails Alliance, West Central Behavioral Health, and WISE. All four signed on again this year, as well as two new partners that were added to meet the growing size of the class, the Farm to School Program at Vital Communities and Good Neighbor Health Clinic.

The students choose their projects, form teams of four, and embark on six site visits to their respective community organizations during the semester. Teams do another needs assessment, much like the one they completed for themselves, but this time for the organization as an entity. They then design an aim for their project, collect and analyze data, and design and execute a project to overcome one of the outstanding challenges of the organization. The final products are a course paper and a class presentation describing the projects, in addition to the deliverable project for the organization, which could range from an instructive pamphlet to an employee survey. One example of a CHIP this year is a group that is partnered with WISE and is evaluating data related to sexual assault on the Dartmouth College campus.

The power of CHIPs is that the good efforts of the college students are not just “donated” to community organizations, nor are these projects completed just for an “A” on an Ivy League transcript. According to Dr. Pipas, students in the course often insist that it’s not about the grade; it’s about making a difference. “And they’ve learned, in these projects, that they can make a difference,” she adds. The students’ will to give is translated into strategic plans or structural support that empower the organizations themselves. Russell Hirschler, executive director of the Upper Valley Trails Alliance, shares that he is “grateful for the opportunity to partner with Dartmouth.” This isn’t just about college students gaining community service hours. It’s about students and organizations partnering to achieve tangible and realistic goals that will go forward after the semester has ended. After all, these organizations continue to meet public health challenges even after the students turn in their final papers.  

Dr. Pipas believes that the vision of the course, “Healthy Students Contributing to Health Communities,” is successfully embodied in all aspects of the course. She sees Introduction to Public Health as a stepping-stone to a greater awareness and improvement of public health on campus. “I hope that in the future the course will not only continue to have a positive effect on the students and the community but will also help bring more health-related courses and experiences to Dartmouth students.” For now, it will be up to the students of this semester’s course to drive the college in the right direction.

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