Liberal Education and Public Health: Surveying the Landscape
2nd Sep, 2009 | Source : Kevin Hovland, Brenda A. Kirkwood, Caleb Ward, Marian Osterweis, Gillian B. Silver
The Growing Undergraduate Public Health Movement
The snapshot numbers found in the catalog scan are certain to increase as the institutions that have participated in the ECPH project formally launch programs that are currently under development. In addition, survey findings (described below) indicate that many institutions that do not currently offer undergraduate public health programs plan to do so in the future. Moreover, it is important to note that during the catalog scan we did not systematically search for individual public health courses offered to undergraduates at institutions that do not offer majors, minors, or concentrations in public health. Epidemiology or global health courses, for example, may be offered through many sociology or global studies departments, but they were not counted in this scan unless they were bundled into a public health-related major, minor, or concentration. It is likely that some institutions that offer such individual courses related to public health will expand upon those offerings, leading to future undergraduate programs in public health.
Undergraduate Public Health Programs Survey
Reflecting the greater movement toward learning outcomes as the compass for the curriculum, respondents identified the broad liberal education outcomes (critical thinking, written and oral communication, integration of learning across disciplines, etc.) as critical areas of focus at their institutions. This positive identification, however, did not extend to the outcomes that were framed in the language of public health competency. Overall, very few respondents reported that the health outcomes described their institutions’ overall expectations and priorities for undergraduate student achievement. This discrepancy suggests that more work is needed to bridge the knowledge gap between the identification of broad learning outcomes and their application to individual, interdisciplinary programs of study.
The list of knowledge areas covered by institutions’ common sets of learning goals or outcomes is consistent with the traditional foci of liberal education. Science and humanities top the list (92 percent), followed closely by social science (90 percent), mathematics (89 percent), global or world cultures (89 percent), and arts (80 percent). A relative low but significant proportion of respondents identify health as a primary knowledge area (35 percent), which compares unfavorably to languages other than English (47 percent), but favorably to sustainability (26 percent). While it is difficult to determine precisely how respondents interpreted “health” as a knowledge outcome area, we are encouraged to see that for more than one-third of institutions, it holds a dedicated spot in the context of common learning goals.
The focus groups shed some light on the logistical challenges of linking public health and general education. Participants described the value in integrating public health into general education, but pointed out significant obstacles to doing so. The major challenges identified by the participating deans and faculty included budgetary constraints on fiscal resources, structural limitations on coordinating across diverse departments, and lack of faculty expertise and development.
Our hope in the ECPH initiative is to increase the number of institutions identifying health as a shared outcome by emphasizing public health, thereby reinforcing the strong connections between the study of health and the liberal education outcomes shared by nearly all institutions. Parallel to this, we also wish to demonstrate that the cross-disciplinary field of public health incorporates the traditional knowledge areas, and can therefore assist in fulfilling a wide range of an institution’s learning goals.
The survey provided us with the opportunity to gather data about courses in which undergraduates wrestle with topics and methodologies identical to, or closely related to, those in public health. We know that 69 percent of respondents offer at least one course to undergraduates that addresses the fundamental outcomes of public health. Such courses are especially important and timely as institutions are committing additional resources and efforts to design and deliver integrative learning experiences as part of their liberal education missions. In addition to introducing students to the frameworks of public health, these courses can provide a valuable foundation for students as they apply the classroom experience to real-world situations.
We also have found that institutions that offer specific courses addressing the fundamental public health outcomes also demonstrate a high degree of interest in curricular innovation and application of high-impact pedagogies. Those institutions that are creating opportunities for students to explore the intersection of health and society are doing so by engaging students in service-learning opportunities (64 percent), developing capstone experiences (48 percent), offering thematically linked courses (32 percent), and creating learning communities (22 percent).
It should be noted that at the same time that undergraduate public health is emerging as a focus of study on many campuses, we are also witnessing a high level of attention to general education reform. A separate survey of AAC&U members revealed that the majority of administrators (56 percent) say general education has increased as a priority for their institution. Senior administrators recognize a lack of coherence in their curricula, with only 35 percent of survey respondents describing their general education programs as having a coherent sequence of courses. Such findings represent an opportunity for undergraduate public health (as well as other interdisciplinary, integrative approaches) to serve as an organizing framework to engage students in general education.
The survey also revealed that those institutions placing a higher priority on general education are placing more emphasis on engaged learning practices, compared to those institutions in which the focus on general education has not increased over the past five years. The majority of member institutions do not currently engage students in real-world learning opportunities, as evidenced by the low marks for civic learning or engagement activities (only 38 percent say this describes their program very well), service-learning opportunities (38 percent), and experiential learning opportunities (36 percent). Indications suggest these are increasingly popular topics of discussion; however, no single one of these approaches is being incorporated into general education programs on a broad scale. There seems to be a natural fit between the demand for these pedagogies in general education and the already widespread use of such practices within undergraduate public health programs. It is the goal of the Educated Citizen and Public Health initiative to increase the intentional focus of public health courses on civic learning and engagement activities and further embed them within the curriculum.
The quantitative and qualitative data gathered to date suggest there is cross-cutting interest in incorporating public health into undergraduate curricula, presented in the form of majors, minors, and concentrations. Critical curricular and cocurricular elements of such programs already exist on many campuses, with evidence to support anticipated growth of additional programs.
There is a high level of interest, commitment, and activity among nearly all surveyed institutions in defining learning outcomes either in majors, in general education, or in both. However, when we put those outcomes into the context of public health, senior academic administrators have not identified the specific health outcomes as important to their overall efforts. Well-designed undergraduate public health programs are ideally suited to align with essential learning outcomes of liberal education, but the connections are not yet clear to many of those who are driving the movement for curricular reform. This alignment, especially at institutions where the public health elements are not gathered in a program, requires intentional efforts to match outcomes and designs.
The lack of a clear, consistent view of what constitutes undergraduate public health presents an opportunity for definition, but also a substantial challenge to coherence. As the emerging field is taking shape, the liberal arts and public health communities have an opportunity to work together to influence its evolution. Due to its highly interdisciplinary nature, there will likely always be variations in how institutions choose to construct their public health programs of study. However, shared underlying themes and common programmatic characteristics will assist in the creation of an area of study widely recognized, and valued, by administrators, faculty and students alike. It is the intent of the Educated Citizen and Public Health initiative to highlight the inherent link between public health principles and liberal learning outcomes as we work toward providing our students with theknowledge, skill, and responsibility of building a healthy society.
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