The patient came in complaining of stomach pains. She was clearly in distress, and nervous, but alert. The team of doctors around her bed calmly and quickly got to work. One took her hand and assured her they would get to the bottom of her pain. Another began a physical examination. Another asked about her family history, her lifestyle, and what she’d recently eaten. It was chaotic, as all emergency rooms are, but the chaos was controlled, and had the feel of a well-oiled machine.
Just six weeks earlier, the same group stood uneasily around a different patient — this one complaining of difficulty breathing. The only sounds were the beeping of a heart monitor, the patient’s labored breathing, and awkward, confused, and nervous laughter from her attendants.
The thing is, these “doctors” weren’t actual doctors, but students from the Urban Science Academy, an open and inclusive STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) high school that is part of Boston Public Schools. The students were visiting Harvard Medical School to take part in the HMS MEDscience program, a STEM initiative aimed at inspiring students and engaging them in science through hands-on experiences.
The program, which launched in 2005 and is currently in 11 Boston schools, is a semester-long high school biology curriculum focused on the anatomy and physiology of seven human organ systems. Each school’s science teacher integrates a MEDscience-designed curriculum into his or her classroom instruction. Once a week, the class travels to the MEDscience Simulation Lab at HMS to apply classroom learning to patient care.
“You can learn on a chalkboard how blood flows through the heart, but when you do, half of the kids will probably be asleep,” said Julie Joyal, executive director of MEDscience. “But if you come to the simulation lab and the patient is now complaining of chest pains, and suddenly we have to debrief on the science around a heart attack — they’re alert and engaged and want to know more.”
The chance at hands-on learning is what draws many students to the class, and what keeps them coming back for more. Educators often find that students who learn through simulation are able to deepen their understanding of an issue by connecting it to real-life experience. Many of the students agree.
“I really enjoyed the hands-on work,” said Urban Science senior Marylynne Kane. “You don’t get that experience in school. It was great to learn something in class, and then get the chance to directly apply it to a real-life situation … I was leaning toward going into journalism before all of this, and then after the first week of MEDscience, that changed. I realized that I like the fast pace of learning in class, and the adrenaline kick of a real-life situation.”
Joyal says the program is also committed to trying to close gaps in opportunity, achievement, and inspiration by driving home the message that STEM-based careers are open to all. It seems to be resonating. A recent study found that 63 percent of students who participated in the program took additional science or health courses, and 97 percent went on to college.
“We hear time and time again that participating in the MEDscience program really helps shape students’ choices about what they want to do in college,” said Joyal. “Whether they had a pre-existing interest in science, or whether this was this first foray — at the end of the day, many of them say that MEDscience is what helped seal the deal. That is our goal, to inspire students and give them opportunities, which in turn gives them confidence. If we can do that, then to us, that’s a success.”
While opening the door to STEM fields is a large component of the program, it’s far from the only MEDscience takeaway. The program also stresses the importance of critical thinking, leadership, problem solving, and teamwork — “all 21st-century skills that employers want, and skills that make kids successful in their careers,” said Joyal.
“I think it’s important for Harvard to be part of the lives of the young people in the community,” said Nancy Oriol, faculty associate dean for community engagement in medical education at HMS and the founder of MEDscience. “To use our resources to help inspire the next generation of scientists, and also to inspire the next generation. It’s not just to become a scientist or to become a doctor, it’s to become the most effective adult you can be. To believe in yourself and to actually believe that you can see a problem and you can solve it and work with a range of people to make great things happen.”
Partner schools say the program has become a critical learning tool for their students.
“Kids know that they’re going to be applying what they learn here at U.S.A. to the lab experience over at MEDscience and so it automatically increases the relevance for students and their learning — they’re going to see that immediate application,” said Jeff Cook, headmaster at Urban Science Academy. “What also makes the program powerful is that the kids engage with some very sophisticated equipment and get to connect with other health service professionals — doctors, surgeons, lab technicians, you name it.”
Tim DiMario, a teacher at Urban Science, has been participating in MEDscience for three years.
“Kids are desperate to know ‘Why do I need to know this?’ and when they’re put in a situation where they have to know it — it’s a completely different story,” he said. “Tomorrow I could give a quiz on the five human vital signs, and my students would probably average 75 percent. But when they go to MEDscience they say, ‘I can’t possibly diagnose someone if I don’t know the vital signs.’ Well, by the end of the day, they know them. Once information is on a need-to-know basis, as opposed to nice-to-know, kids will find a way to make it work for them.”
Oriol said that from the very beginning of the program, 12 years ago, the effect on students has been clear to see.
“For the very first class, they came but they didn’t want to be here,” she said. “They came because their teachers told them they had to come. They were losing a week of vacation — in the summer.” (MEDscience started as a weeklong summer immersion program. Today it takes place on a weekly basis during the school year.)
“They showed up, arms folded, wondering why they were here. And by the end of that first day, things had changed and they did not want to leave. After that they began coming early and leaving late. The program touched them so deeply — it changed who they thought they could eventually be.”
DiMario has seen the same types of transformations.
“Once it becomes real to kids that success is more about skills than it is about background, or where you come from … that we’re looking for qualified people who are willing to try and willing to take risks and willing to work together to problem-solve and think critically — then I think success becomes attainable for them,” he said. “The biggest obstacle is believing you can do it.”
The program serves hundreds of students every semester. Both Joyal and Oriol said they hope to expand into more Boston schools, move on to Cambridge, and eventually partner with other medical schools across the country.
Every semester brings new success stories. One of the most memorable for Oriol and Joyal is that of Justin Owumi, a student in one of their very first classes who now volunteers with the program.
“For me, being able to work with students hits closer to home because these are students from the same community I came from … and seeing the excitement and the increase in their self-esteem and their self-efficacy is amazing,” said Owumi, who grew up in Dorchester and Jamaica Plain. “For a lot of kids in our community, that’s all it is. Someone investing in you and seeing that you’re smart and saying, ‘Hey, you have all these things going on in your life. And you might be thinking to yourself — I don’t know if I can do this.’ But then you can actually see them realize that they do have the tools to be successful. That’s easily the best part. And it’s why I keep going back.”
Last month, Owumi finished up his first year at Tufts University School of Medicine.
“The MEDscience program gave me the confidence and showed me that I could actually do it. To have experts in the field, even though you’re just a high school student, tell you that you’re smart and talented and that you can really do this was incredibly inspiring. During MEDscience was when I said to myself, ‘Yeah, I can really do this, and I’m going to do this. … I’m going to go to medical school to become a doctor because I really can’t see myself doing anything else.’”