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KU School of Medicine students share the joy of science with KCK middle-schoolers

Jan 19, 2011

Each month, 45 medical students at the University of Kansas Medical Center (KUMC) volunteer for an extra hour of class. But this hour isn’t like all the rest because the students become the teachers.


For one Wednesday a month, KU School of Medicine students teach science to more than 600 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at Argentine Middle School in Kansas City, Kan. The program, titled Students in Schools, is the brain child of second-year medical student Justin Hoskins.


Hoskins got the idea for the program when he was substitute teaching in the Kansas City, Kan., School District before entering medical school.


“I saw many students who were ambitious but didn’t have any idea the work it would take to accomplish their career goals,” says Hoskins.


The problem, according to Hoskins, stemmed partly from a lack of positive role models. He knew of just the adults to fill this role — his fellow medical students.


“My classmates are so generous and caring that I was sure several would want to help out. I knew Students in Schools would be successful if we could just get it started,” he says.


Hoskins was right. With institutional support from the Health Careers Pathways Program in the KUMC Office of Cultural Enhancement and Diversity, the motivated medical students connected with innovative teachers in the Kansas City, Kan. School District to launch the program.


Now in its second year, Students in Schools operates within all 39 classrooms at Argentine Middle School.


In each classroom visit, KU medical students teach a science lesson relating to a part of the human body or a human health concern. The lesson also includes healthy life choices that can help prevent related health problems.


“These are lessons that we know our kids need to be taught, but unfortunately, if it’s not in the curriculum, we don’t always have time to teach it,” says Karri Mazzapica, who teaches science and social studies to seventh graders at Argentine Middle School.  Mazzapica works closely with Hoskins to facilitate the program at Argentine.


The lessons are resonating with the students, says Mazzapica, who recalls a day when an Argentine student excitedly told her that he chose a salad instead of the cheeseburger at lunch. That was the same day the medical students had presented on heart disease. 


“You’re proud of these kids because they are able to take something they learned that morning and put it to work,” she says.


Students in Schools is about much more than science education, though. The goal of Students in Schools is to not only encourage middle-schoolers to pursue healthy lifestyles, but also pursue higher education. The medical students spend part of each lesson talking with the middle-schoolers about a different aspect of college. The same medical student is paired with the same classroom each month to foster a mentoring relationship.


“They don’t often hear about kids who are like them and in medical school,” says Laura Blasi, a second-year medical student who was educated in an inner-city school district in Topeka, Kan. Blasi believes that by illustrating similarities between the medical students and the middle school students, Students in Schools can “promote a commitment to life-long learning.”


Marcia Pomeroy, associate director for the Health Careers Pathways program at KUMC, believes that in addition to a commitment to learning, the medical students are encouraging the middle school students to think about a possible career in health care.  


“The model in Argentine is an incredible gift,” says Pomeroy. “If you note in the state of Kansas the lack of minority physicians, and here you have this audience of minority middle school students now for the first time looking at health careers. They’re role models not just as a medical students, but as communicators and positive people, and the [middle school] students can see themselves in the future as one of them.”


Jake Kenyon, a second-year medical student, sees that enthusiasm for health careers first hand.  By inspiring the Argentine students to consider college, Kenyon believes that Students in Schools will pay dividends for the individual student and also the Kansas City, Kan., community.


“If we can get a few [middle school students] staying on the track to going into medicine, nursing, physical therapy or any of the allied health sciences, then we’re benefitting Kansas and the community around here,” says Kenyon, who’s originally from Atchison. “This is part of the overall scope of our role as future health care providers, to have a large role in protecting the health of our community.”


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