When Jennifer Schnellmann came to the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine in Tucson about two years ago, her dean wanted to broaden the school’s appeal by offering courses to undergraduates.
“I was the only one who was willing,” said Schnellmann, an associate professor in the department of pharmacology. “He just turned me loose.”
Schnellmann came up with ideas for six courses to make pharmacology accessible to nonspecialists. They include courses on controversies in the field, human performance, toxicology, and the pharmacology of sex, among others.
She’s teaching all six of them this semester, almost all of them in hybrid or blended form, which means some parts are offered online and others in person. To meet her required contact hours, she hops on the shuttle from the medical school and travels about four miles to the main campus.
I asked her what it was like to teach six courses at once, even if most of them are small classes. “Oh my goodness,” she said. “I’m feeling it.”
Medical-school courses aimed at undergraduates aren’t unheard of, says Alison Whelan, chief medical-education officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges. While the association doesn’t keep track of data on how many of these courses there are, the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of research has meant that medical-school faculty members are working with professors from other departments or schools more often.
“In addition,” Whelan said in an email, “faculty participation may increase as medical schools become aware of their undergraduate students’ interest in medicine and biomedical research.”
The students in Schnellmann’s courses aren’t necessarily interested in medicine or biomedical research. Yes, some of them are majoring in health sciences, but she also has psychology and nutrition majors. There are some from classics and Chinese studies, too. “They’re some of the brightest kids in the room,” she said.
Students in her courses get exposed to the science underpinning pharmacology, but it’s connected to larger questions and ethical issues. For her course on pharmacological controversies, for example, students record podcasts or write 1,500-2,000-word essays on subjects like lethal injection, addiction, pharmacists’ conscience clauses, and RU-486, citing peer-reviewed sources. The essays result in a book, which she publishes and mails to the students’ parents.
As the parent of a 20-year-old, Schnellmann thought she knew all about college students, and she’d heard how they were supposedly entitled. “I don’t see that in anybody,” she said. “They’re gentle and thoughtful. It’s mind-blowing and refreshing.”
Experience has taught her that undergrads tolerate professors’ efforts to be creative. Graduate students, on the other hand, are often preoccupied with grades, professional licensure, and job placement, she said. Her experience teaching undergraduate courses, in turn, has taught her that it doesn’t hurt to slow down and simplify things when she’s teaching graduate students.
Another strategy she’s developed is something that faculty members in any field can use. Last year, she started creating four-minute YouTube videos introducing her courses. Links to the videos are put on departmental websites so that students can see what the courses are about before they register.
A video for a seminar called “The Joy of Drugs” opens with a series of questions: “Did you know that physicians are not drug experts? Did you know that Viagra was never intended to be an erectile-dysfunction drug? Did you know that homeopathic remedies do not even contain active ingredients and are basically water?” If these ideas sound crazy or intriguing, she says, you might want to take this course with her.
“Students don’t take the class,” she said. “They take the professor.”
Have you ever tried something creative or unusual to introduce your course to students and encourage them to take it? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I may use it in a future newsletter.
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