September 19, 2008 The Pump Handle 1Comment

The front page of today’s Washington Post announces “Public Health Is a Hot Field,” reporting that an understanding of epidemiology, community-based interventions, disease surveillance and study design are high-demand topics on college campuses for undergraduate students.  I learned this exact thing two years ago when I was asked to teach part of the required curriculum for the George Washington University’s (GWU) Bachelor of Science in Public Health degree.  Wash Post reporter Dan Brown writes:

Public health courses “…are drawing undergraduates to lecture halls in record numbers, prompting a scramble by colleges to hire faculty and import ready-made courses. Schools that have taught the subjects for years have expanded their offerings in response to surging demand.”

Here at GWU, our BS-PH program has graduated 120 students since May 2005 and about 60 young women and men are in the program currently.  The Post article notes that 137 of the 837 members of the Association of American Colleges and Universities offers majors or minors in public health. 

“‘Today’s students want to contribute, to empower individuals and communities to take charge of their own health,’ said Ruth Gaare Bernheim, who teaches health policy at the University of Virginia. ‘I think they also intuitively realize that the world is their community and that the gains of the 21st century will be in global public health.'”

“The concepts introduced in basic epidemiology courses include causation and correlation, absolute risk and relative risk, biological plausibility and statistical uncertainty. Nearly all health stories in the news — from the possible hazards of bisphenol A in plastics and the theory that vaccines cause autism, to racial disparities in health care and missteps in the investigation of tainted peppers — are better understood with grounding in that discipline.”

My own experience teaching and interacting with undergraduate public health students has been an exceptional experience.  Many are seriously concerned about the potential consequences of climate change, environmental degradation, globalization, and war, and are searching for the tools and knowledge to characterize these problems in terms of public health impacts.  Nearly all of them express a desire to pursue career paths in which they can improve the lives of others, or make the world a more sustainable and healthy place for future generations.  “My” public health students refuel my hope, which dwindles from time-to-time, that the world can be a more just and equitable place for all.  Some have also contributed posts for The Pump Handle (here, here, here, here.)

For more information on undergraduate education in public health, see “Back to the Pump Handle” (Liberal Education, Fall 2007), and “Recommendations for undergraduate public health education.”

Celeste Monforton, MPH, DrPH is a research instructor at the GWU School of Public Health.  She teaches “Health and the Environment” (PubH 172) in the Spring semester.

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