Coming Full Circle: Population Health Sciences 370

A blog post written by Kara Mathewson, 2018-2020 Fellow

I still remember walking up the hill to Birge Hall with one of my good college friends (and now fellow public health professional at Auburn University) and arriving at the basement entrance where we were met each day by a fierce, stuffed badger in a glass display case. We were headed to our first class of the day – Pop Health 370: Introduction to Public Health, Local to Global Perspectives.

As a sophomore in college, this was one of the first public health courses I would take. I recall being intrigued about using the public health approach in a discussion around bike helmets. Looking back, I also recall not fully understanding the practical applications of the social-ecological model. (Don’t worry, I do now.) Dr. Remington’s lecture sparked my interest in public health, and I started thinking about the larger population-level ties to the microbes I was studying in my other classes (as a microbiology major). I realized I was much more interested in the population level of infectious disease and prevention rather than studying the physiology of these microscopic organisms.

Fast forward five years and two academic degrees later (I went to get my MPH, as I didn’t want to spend one more minute doing wet lab bench work and I was so ready to dive deeper into public health) and now I’m a pop health fellow! I could go on and on about what an amazing year it has been as a fellow, but I’d like to zoom into one aspect of my fellowship experience: being a discussion leader for the UW Pop Health 370 course.

This spring semester I had the opportunity to lead a weekly discussion for the very class where my public health interest began. Despite my initial nerves about leading a discussion of 15 students only a few years my junior, I had a great experience leading them through discussions on a wide variety of public health topics.

So let me jump right into the positives of leading section 317:

1. Had really great students

  • I was a bit nervous that I might have a class of students who were shy to participate or were not excited about the topics; however, I was lucky to have a class that was eager to discuss the topics each week. The students were fun to interact with and brought their own opinions and experiences to share and reflect on.

2. Realized my own level of knowledge

  • I can now confirm that teaching really does help you to understand and retain knowledge better than just studying it. From leading this discussion, not only have I been able to really assess my knowledge level around public health fundamentals, but I also deepened my understanding of them and feel like I can more easily apply these concepts in my everyday work.

3. Strengthened my facilitation skills

  • The first tip they give you about facilitating is to embrace the awkward silence. This is something I’m glad I knew going into the discussion group, as there were plenty of times this occurred, and eventually students chimed in. I also learned a number of facilitation skills from leading this discussion including strategies to create a space where all views are valued. I found it extremely helpful to hear from other discussion leaders about their methods and best practices for meaningful discussion.

4. Jumped into things I loved from grad school

  • Outbreaks and case studies and vaccines, oh my! Another highlight for me in leading this discussion was revisiting some of my public health passions that I don’t work on every day. One of my favorite discussion activities was an outbreak investigation case study, of which I did many in grad school. It was fun to share my excitement about these public health topics with students and see what topics excited them as well. 

5. Applied critical thinking skills

  • These skills have come from all the learning I’ve done in the first 11 months of the fellowship through learning community meetings, the Community Teams Program through the Healthy Wisconsin Leadership Institute, and my placement site at DHS. I noticed in preparing for discussion each week, I was able to delve further into readings and videos in ways I hadn’t before. I found myself thinking more critically about articles which sparked questions for me to ask students around things such as upstream determinants of health and equity considerations.

In reflecting on my Pop Health 370 discussion section, I must also add that even the best experiences have their own challenges.

1. Many public health topics lead to hard conversations. We talked about gun violence, the diabetes epidemic occurring in Native American communities, and social determinants like poverty and racism. While these are all crucial discussions to improve public health they can be difficult to debate without also discussing, in-depth, strategies to solve these problems, including the work people are currently doing to combat these issues.

2. On that note, I think there is a need for bringing more solutions and current examples of good work to these conversations. It’s certainly difficult to get through everything you want to in a 75-minute discussion, but I feel that it would have improved the discussion to also read and explore solutions and current strategies. We did spend some classes exploring the evidence-based programs and policies that could improve issues, but I would have loved to have students take a deeper dive into these and get exposure to the many organizations, agencies, and individuals doing great work.

3. Lastly, it was difficult for me to not receive any feedback from students throughout the semester. Trying to read students’ faces did not give me much indication about how I was doing as a facilitator and I’m anxious to hear what my students thought about our discussion so I can explore ways to be a better discussion facilitator/leader.

Overall, I had a wonderful time leading this discussion and I’m so grateful that my fellowship experience brought me back to the place my interest in public health began.

Section 317 – outdoor policy discussion! The students went through the nominal group process to select a policy they thought would have the biggest impact on public health and eliminating disparities.

Section 317 – outdoor policy discussion! The students went through the nominal group process to select a policy they thought would have the biggest impact on public health and eliminating disparities.