Summer study in public health boosts STEM interest in students

Rutgers program shows potential to build career pathways.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, when high school students were given the chance to learn about public health during summer months, they took advantage of it. And the outcomes were surprising.

Of the 130 students across more than 60 high schools who participated in weeklong Rutgers University studies in 2018 and 2019, the vast majority said it boosted their interest in STEM areas related to the field, which previously had fallen in popularity.

In fact, Rutgers leaders said that the program, which combined three topics tailored to students’ appetites-alcohol, tobacco and sleep, and tied to flu and measles outbreaks-sparked intrigue in public health pathways and received a perfect score in exit interviews with students.

“Including interdisciplinary, authentic learning experiences in our summer program enabled students to personally connect public health disciplines with their personal experiences, as well as with population health in general,” said Laura E. Liang, co-director of the PHocus Summer Experience and associate dean of academic affairs at the Rutgers School of Public Health. “These personally relevant topics, supplemented by exposure to academic research practices, not only personally interested students but also aided in student learning and retention.”

The study, which appeared in the journal Pedagogy in Health Promotion, examined whether students would be more apt to pursue futures in public health if they were exposed to education on it. The answer was a resounding yes. The Public Health: Outbreaks, Communities, and Urban Studies (PHocus) program scored 90% or better among consecutive cohorts in 2018 and 2019, who indicated a desire to look into potential postsecondary opportunities.

Rutgers leaders said the outcomes could have implications for other similar studies, or potentially other fields that resonate with students. One obvious area of interest that could further drive a lean toward public health pathways would be studies around COVID-19. Giving students a chance to enhance learning in the summer has limitless potential.

“Through our integration of current public health faculty and community sector partners, students can create interpersonal connections with public health professionals while also experiencing these professions through their immersion in simulations and activities,” said Marian Passannante, co-director of PHocus and associate dean for Education Program Development and Global Programs at the Rutgers School of Public Health. “This allows students to explore the breadth of career opportunities in public health and encourages them to begin to think about their future.”

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