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Applied public health practice course supports students and communities

April 12, 2023
by Jane E. Dee

Assistant Professor Debbie Humphries taught the Yale School of Public Health’s Practice-based Community Health Research course for 15 years. During that time, Humphries prepared hundreds of students for careers in public health practice and research using a unique blend of projects submitted by community organizations and coursework on theory and practice in community-engaged research.

Applied practice opportunities are deemed essential to both undergraduate and graduate public health programs, a fact emphasized in the 2016 changes to the Council on Education for Public Health accreditation requirements.

“In experiential learning, students reflect on their skills and knowledge while solving real-world problems. This reflection can create a deeper consolidation of learned material and establishes intrinsic motivation for new skills and knowledge,” said Mike Honsberger, director of academic affairs at Yale School of Public Health (YSPH).

In addition to the Applied Practice Experience, a requirement for MPH students attending an accredited public health program or school, YSPH offers practicum courses during both the fall and spring semesters. These courses provide students with the opportunity to obtain hands-on experience in diverse public health settings and in areas such as climate change, policy, and health care management, said Susan Nappi, executive director of the Office of Public Health Practice at YSPH.

“The diverse practicum course offerings at YSPH provide students with vital training and mentoring that meets both their personal and professional goals,” Nappi said. “Embedding these experiences within a supportive course framework allows for deep learning and support, advancing students beyond theory to practice.”

Humphries provides a detailed framework of her class and discusses its mission, impact, and goals in a recent paper published in Pedagogy in Health Promotion entitled Lessons From a Community Driven Experiential Public Health Course.” The paper is co-authored by Christina Bastida, MPH ‘ 18, the lead teaching assistant for the course, and Mahaya Walker, MPH ‘19, a research assistant.

As public health practice at YSPH continues to evolve, Humphries’ course has provided critical groundwork for how this work should be done, said Kathleen Duffany, assistant professor of clinical public health (Social and Behavioral Sciences) at YSPH. “Attending the students’ final presentation sessions over the years, co-authoring posters with students, and as a faculty expert and guest speaker in Debbie’s course, I saw firsthand how the course structure benefitted both students and community organizations,” said Duffany, who is also faculty director of the Office of Public Health Practice’s (OPHP) Community Impact Lab.

“Additionally, the course content on what many term ‘soft skills,’ such as communications, group dynamics, and group reflection, is crucial as we train and build a future public health workforce.” Duffany added that she plans to continue to integrate aspects of Humphries’ teaching into her own work, and to apply its learnings in other YSPH courses and practicum experiences.

Key Components of Applied Practice Opportunities

An experiential public health course provides a scaffolding for practice-based community health research, Humphries said. This allows first- and second-year students to develop and strengthen skills in planning and implementation and the opportunity to practice using those skills in a real-world setting.

A key component of the applied practice course is community engagement. Students interact with community organizations who submit proposals for the course, laying out the issue or concern they want to address. “The organization has identified a priority, and they are seeking student assistance in addressing this priority,” Humphries said. “By starting with a community-identified need, we ensure the community benefits from the students’ work.” Organizations receive high-quality student work products such as short community-facing reports, while students develop public health skills in a structured and mentored setting. Students also see how their work can be impactful and beneficial to the community, Humphries added.

Taking ownership of the projects encourages student to commit to their projects, prompts them to make decisions, and allows them to learn from their challenges. The close mentorship assures that they identify practical solutions to address challenges and successfully produce high-quality products that address the needs of their partner organizations.

Lessons Learned

Students learn and strengthen a variety of skills in the applied practice courses, including relationship building, project planning, creating a logic model and program theory, completing IRB applications, developing data collection instruments, and qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis[PC1] .

Toward the end of the course, the students write a reflection paper about their experiences. By reflecting on the learning process, students identify skills they have strengthened during the course and opportunities they had to use what they’ve learned in previous coursework. Christine N. Pham, MPH ’22, analyzed student reflection papers from 2008-2018 for her thesis, which has now been published in Frontiers of Public Health. Of 236 students who took the course, 104 consented to have their course reflection essays analyzed. Students said the course helped them develop practical public health skills as well as communication and problem-solving skills. Students highlighted such things as a greater awareness of how they are perceived by community members, their positional power as Yale students, experiences of unintended miscommunication and misunderstandings, the challenges of navigating the priorities of service organizations, and cleaning and analyzing data. The study’s findings are intended to help educators design future applied practice experiences, said Humphries and co-authors Christine N. Pham, MPH ‘22, and Research Scientist Shayna D. Cunningham[PC2] .

An archive of previous applied public health practice projects is available on the course’s website. The reports have been reviewed and approved by the preceptors before making them publicly available and represent most of the projects completed by students in the class over the last 10 years. Prior projects include:

  • Nontraditional transitional housing models in New Haven.
  • A rapid community assessment addressing the COVID-19 vaccine for children.
  • Empowering migrant Latina women.
  • An exploration of alternative policing models in Hamden, CT.
  • Barriers to accessing health care and health needs of undocumented immigrants.
  • Identifying mechanisms for increased recruitment of marginalized populations in medication-assisted treatment programs.
Submitted by Jane E. Dee on April 12, 2023