Harvard Medicine

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Flower and Stem

High-school students try their hand at medicine

Photo: Jake MillerJenny said she was nauseated and weak. The 16-year-old also complained of hunger, yet said she was eating nonstop. The symptoms puzzled those reviewing them, so, determined to diagnose Jenny’s malady, team members did a review of systems and recorded the adolescent’s blood pressure, heart rate, known allergies, family health history, even Jenny’s report on whether she was sexually active.

Thorough though they were, those reviewing Jenny’s case were not doctors. And Jenny was not a patient in an emergency department. Instead, the “doctors” were high-school students, Jenny was a medical simulation mannequin at HMS, and the emergency department was a classroom. This was all part of MEDscience, a high-school science curriculum designed to increase students’ interest and engagement in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and the careers those sciences offer.

Cofounded by Nancy Oriol ’79, HMS dean for students; James Gordon, an HMS associate professor of medicine; and Julie Joyal, program director, MEDscience integrates classroom learning with hands-on applications in the simulation centers and in one of the five HMS-affiliated teaching hospitals that the students regularly visit: Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston Children’s Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Mount Auburn Hospital. The semester ends with the students writing essays reflecting on their experiences in the program.

“This is the only program we know of like this,” says Joyal, who worked as a nurse for 25 years before joining the program. “The students learn core biology and health literacy, develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills and learn to work as a team.”

Joyal says staff is undertaking a formal evaluation of the program, but that anecdotally, they know that some graduates have become emergency medical technicians, at least three have become nurses, and two have become medical students.

MEDscience began in 2005 as a one-week summer intensive course and grew into a semester-long class. Currently, students from Boston, Brookline, and Watertown public schools are enrolled. Every year there is a wait list and, at present, 200 students at Brookline High School alone are hoping for a berth next year.

“It’s awesome watching them think through science,” says Oriol. “They follow the same steps as medical students, pulling on what they’ve learned and testing hypotheses.”

Back in the “clinic,” the students overseeing Jenny’s care used their newly gained knowledge of the endocrine system to diagnose their patient. Their diagnosis was correct: diabetes.