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Student design partners at College of Medicine begin work on new curriculum

Five students at Penn State College of Medicine have deferred the start of medical school for a year to serve as student design partners who are helping to shape the curriculum that will guide their medical education. You can follow some of their adventures on Instagram.

The innovative curriculum that is under development at the University Park Regional Campus is the first of its kind in the nation to use students as partners in the design process. They will learn to practice medicine in a rapidly changing healthcare environment where thinking critically, using the best available evidence and collaborating in teams will be required skills.

The program being developed by the student design partners comes as the College of Medicine prepares to offer a full medical school curriculum at its Regional Campus beginning in the fall of 2017. In each of the last four years, as many as 24 students had spent their third and fourth years at University Park after completing their first two years of medical education at the main College of Medicine campus in Hershey.

From this August through June 2017, the student design partners will work with faculty to develop and pilot a flexible and integrated program of study. They are using as their foundation goals and core concepts drafted by a visionary team of Penn State educators.

The student design partners will be immersed in a range of experiences throughout the State College area. By connecting with community members at supermarkets, fairs, festivals and church functions, the partners will develop a comprehensive understanding of the region and its health care needs. They will use these encounters along with a foundation in education and health systems sciences to craft an innovative curriculum that will prepare the physicians of tomorrow to provide comprehensive healthcare to the broader community.

Each student design partner will then transition to a full-time student role at the Regional Campus in fall 2017. The students will each receive a scholarship covering half of their medical school tuition and housing expenses.

“Our education design efforts are expanding to bring in perspectives from the community, the healthcare system and the students, all of whom will reap the benefits of this new kind of collaboration,” said Dr. Terry Wolpaw, vice dean for educational affairs at the College of Medicine. “In a typical medical school curriculum, new medical students spend the majority of their time in classrooms. The curriculum at the regional campus will flip this pattern on its head, with new students beginning medical school by spending the majority of their time learning from and about patients. This will serve to ignite students' curiosity and questions about the sciences that underlie disease and about the deeply human side of illness.”

“Having been born and raised in rural Centre County, I have always had the desire to return after medical school to serve this area,” said Morgan Decker, a student design partner. “I hope to grow personally from the experiences that the coming year will bring, but more importantly, I hope to see our contributions have a direct impact on my community.”

The students are learning in an environment that fosters curiosity and the ability to work across teams, while working to create a curriculum grounded in medical science, clinical science, health systems science and humanistic care, which are the hallmarks of the College of Medicine as a whole.

“After each of our experiences, we’ll individually research the science behind what we’ve seen and share it with classmates and mentors for feedback,” said Jason Spicher, a student design partner. “I believe this active learning technique will encourage curiosity and our overall development as medical students.”

The expanding curriculum at the University Park Regional Campus is the latest example of how the College of Medicine is striving to meet the nation's evolving healthcare needs, while also providing flexibility and individualized learning for students.

  • Under the Family Medicine Accelerated Program that began in 2014, students are offered the opportunity to complete medical school in three years, followed by a three-year family medicine residency in the same location. An accelerated program also began recently in internal medicine. In 2017, the accelerated programs will expand to include emergency medicine, orthopedics and neurosurgery.
  • Also in 2014, the College launched its Systems Navigation Curriculum, which embeds first-year medical students into the healthcare system as patient navigators.

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