Chapter 05: Establishing the School of Allied Health Professions: Challenges and A Commitment to Excellence and Critical Thinking

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Chapter 05: Establishing the School of Allied Health Professions: Challenges and A Commitment to Excellence and Critical Thinking

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Description

In this chapter, Dr. Ahearn goes into more detail about creating the School of Allied Health Professions in an institution already very pressed for space. He paints a striking picture of the School's first class of 35 students maneuvering their way into tiny ad hoc classrooms. He outlines the School's educational philosophy and commitment to critical thinking.

Identifier

Ahearn,MJ_01_20110802_S05

Publication Date

8-2-2011

Publisher

The Historical Resources Center, The Research Medical Library, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

City

Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

The Interview Subject's Story - The Administrator; The Administrator; The Educator; The Leader; MD Anderson History; Professional Practice; The Professional at Work; Education; Institutional Processes; Building/Transforming the Institution

Disciplines

History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Oncology | Oral History

Transcript

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Yeah.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

Yeah. So can we talk about the growth of the school? And maybe let’s start this -- because you’ve served as Dean of the school since 1987, so when you took on that role, what was your philosophy about education and about developing this as a formal institution that would deliver educational products?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Well, we were looking at some of the areas that were critical for workforce needs within the institution and where we might best put our resources, because they were small as we began the programs, particularly when they were backing certificate based programs and we were getting no State support whatsoever for these programs. We had to use our resources wisely, and so each program we added needed to have the backing of the clinical department that was associated with that profession in order to be able to help us financially support the programs. And that was the way they developed. It was piecemeal. As I said, by the time we became degree granting we had five programs. Now we have eight that cover most of what I call the meat and potato professions to make an institution run. That’s not to belittle any of the allied health professional areas, but some are not as required for the everyday operation of an institution and a hospital patient care facility like the eight programs that we have. These are core programs that take, carry a major burden of the diagnostic in providing chemical services to our patients.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

What were some of the first tasks that you had to take on when this school was formed? And thinking back to your relationship with -- Dr. Painter, is it? -- the stellar teacher, the pied piper teacher that you mentioned earlier, you know, were you thinking at all about that level of quality of educational delivery in the classroom at the same time that you’re making decisions about what fields to train in?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Well, for the excellence of the training I must tell you that when we started we had one classroom that was made up of Dr. John Shively in his office, and his outer office, where his secretary was, was a computer laboratory, and every student that entered into the classroom had to walk through that computer laboratory, which was -- as you might imagine, if it was an outer office area, it was very small. And everybody had to squinch their chairs up to let people move through to get into that one classroom, and being able to schedule lectures for three programs with one classroom -- it was a challenge. And we couldn’t deliver quality programs that way, and so that was the challenge first, to get the physical facilities to be able to train adequately. The laboratory facilities did not exist. We were having to depend on our service laboratories to provide space for our training of our students, and as the Institution grew and as our numbers of students grew, this was an impossible situation, because we were intruding, really, on the patient care areas to provide laboratory space for our students. And although certainly they needed to have that exposure, they didn’t need to have basic training in the area that was delivering patient service, because it was interruptive. And so we -- you know, those first years were involved in just providing the physical needs for the school in order that we could have quality instruction and education here. And I think that we were always -- the goal was to be the very best and to provide the very best, and certainly Anderson has always had that feeling that ours was the very best, but we did not have that insofar as the basic support structure for these educational programs at that time. We do now, we have the very finest, but in those days it was very difficult. And it was a stepwise process; it couldn’t all happen at one time.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

How many students did you start out with?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

We had 35 students back at the time we became degree granting, and this fall we’re going to grow 348 students, so there’s been a tremendous growth in the number of students.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

Can you tell me a bit about the process of getting the physical plant established for the school, and...?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Well, there’s always been a space problem at Anderson because we’ve always grown, and we’ve always outgrown the space before it was completed, you know, and so therefore it was difficult, because we had to wait for some laboratory to move out to a newer space, and then we would claim the old space. And so that was the way we grew. Now, of course, it’s a different situation. As I said, some of the finest laboratories and classrooms based anywhere in the country, but in those days we had to take what was, sort of what was left, because there was such a need, first of all, for patient care, which has always been the primary goal in providing for that, and it -- education had to sort of take a little bit -- understandably so -- a second seat. But each time we gained something, it was something far better than what we had before, so we were always moving up, and that was the atmosphere that the faculty and the students felt. You know, we didn’t have anything like this before. I remember we had -- we tried to schedule some of our classes in conference rooms, but once again, as Anderson grew the conference schedules did not allow us to be able to utilize the rooms as much as we needed to, and when we moved into the area that had formerly been occupied by the Nursing School and the Health Science Center Nursing School built their new building, and they had classrooms over in the Houston Main Building, which had been the old Prudential building, and that was the first time that we actually had classrooms. Before then it had been what we call conference rooms where we could move in and try to use for a couple of hours each day, but we actually, when we moved to the old Nursing School area, we had classrooms.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

That’s amazing to think about, you know, that that... That seems so basic to running an academic institution! (laughter)

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Yes! Well, you know, it was because we were building an academic institution within an existing structure that was pressed for space and resources for patient care, and as I said, we’ve always recognized that, and the institution has been very generous to us in supporting us and allowing for growth.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

Who were some of the other people who were involved in establishing the school?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Well, I think all three of the -- Dr. Clark, of course, was a little bit earlier on, but he was nevertheless supportive of these early certificate programs, and then Dr.[Charles A.]

LeMaistre [Oral History Interview]

, who came to Anderson from the Chancellorship of the University of Texas certainly was aware of the value of education and was supportive. And then when Dr. Mendelsohn came and really made the big push to make that big hurdle -- I think that had always been something that people perhaps knew was going to require a tremendous amount of effort, and they didn’t know at the time if it was going to be worthwhile doing, Dr. Mendelsohn jumped in and said, “We’re going to do it,” and so...

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

Who else was involved with you as you were visiting with people, you know, legislature...?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Well, I think that the initial impetus was from Dr. Bowen to bring these programs and give them some sort of an academic structure initially, and then in each one of the leadership roles after that Dr. Margaret Kripke was the Vice President for Academic Affairs, and she was tremendously supportive. And then subsequently Steve Tomasovic, that you interviewed yesterday, has been a tremendous supporter of our academic programs. And the arrival, of course, of our first Provost, Dr. DuBois, he has continued that support. So we have always from upper administration had support for the academic programs here at this institution.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

I noticed in some of the materials from the school that I was looking over, you had this phrase: “It’s critical to think critically.” And I’m a big supporter of critical thinking myself, I have to say, in academic settings, and so that jumped out at me, and it’s very prominently displayed on most of your materials, so I’m wondering where the phrase came from at MD Anderson, and how you execute that mission to the critical thinking, and why?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Well, it’s simply because in each one of these professional areas, that is what they’re going to be doing from the time they graduate throughout their professional careers. It’s critical thinking, because they’re no longer going to be able to say the four reasons for this are ABCD. It’s taking that knowledge and transferring it to the professional setting which they’re working, whether it be in the clinical laboratory or one of the other areas, and we found through the years -- I don’t know what it says about our educational effort, but at the undergraduate level so many students know how to memorize things very greatly, but they do not transfer that knowledge over to being able to solve problems, and problem solving is almost paramount in each one of these allied health professions. So I think that we developed that term “It’s critical to think critically,” as the Institution’s quality enhancement plan for our regional accrediting. Regional accrediting bodies require you to have a quality enhancement plan that you work on, and for ours we discovered that since we were already very much concerned with problem solving and critical thinking that that was a natural area for our School of Health Professions. And the fact that we were finding more and more that the students that came into the school, when their prerequisites -- because we teach the last two years of professional training here at this institution. The first two years are done at other undergraduate institutions, and then the students transfer those hours in to this institution. We were finding students were less well prepared than ever, and so we have had to step up our efforts in how we can overcome that. We can’t do remediation because our curriculum is so heavy already in the number of hours that we have to teach our students that we can’t go back and re-teach the courses that they had had earlier, but that we could incorporate areas of critical thinking in our presentation of the professional curriculum in order to try to change this philosophy over from memorizing facts to being able to utilize facts to solve problems.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

How does that happen in the classroom? I mean...

Michael Ahearn, PhD

In various ways. Rather than just being regular, didactic presentations of facts, the professor will stop and ask questions and get responses, utilizing response systems that we have now in our classrooms. All of our students are required to have laptop computers, and the classrooms are equipped where students can respond from their computers anonymously. They don’t have to hold up their hand and be recognized. The faculty can say, “How many of you think A, B, C, or D is the proper way to approach this?” They can respond immediately from their computer and can see in the classroom how their peers are voting also because they can do histograms on the screen in front of the classroom, and the professor can also determine how well he’s got a concept across. If he can see -- and he doesn’t even have to project it, he can just look on his computer screen and follow the answers, and if he sees that a majority of the class did not get the concept then he can go back and repeat it again and emphasize it in a different way in order to get comprehension of that particular point that he was trying to make. He did have to wait until a test to be able to determine that, but it’s that involvement of students in the actual process, and then interdisciplinary learning where we bring people from different professional areas together in solving problems that are presented to them, and each one of them has to use the skills of their profession, and it calls into play, what actually they will be doing when they get into the clinical areas of service; the problems that they’re going to be confronting there. It lets them know early on, “I really don’t understand the concept of this. I need to go back and get the facts.” And so it’s that constant interaction between the instructor and the student that -- and throwing out problems, rather than just giving facts, and depending on the student later to be able to utilize those facts to solve problems, actually bringing problem solving into the action classroom.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

And interaction across disciplinary lines, too, and it’s striking me that that’s been a theme at MD Anderson from the very beginning.

Michael Ahearn, PhD

It has, and being able to train the students to be able to [fact?]

that when they actually are in the professional area they’re going to be interacting from one professional area to another. It’s not just their profession; it’s they’re interacting with all the other clinical data that’s coming in. So putting them in that in the classroom has been a very revolutionary area in our training, and certainly directed toward problem solving and critical thinking.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

Have you -- what methods have you instituted to measure the effectiveness of these, this critical thinking model?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Well, our Institutional Research Department does a lot of our testing of our students, and we have tests that actually measure, clinical thinking tests. One that we use here is the CAT test, Critical Assessment Testing, and students are given critical thinking tests when they enter the school and then when they graduate, and we look at the change in their... And of course, the critical thinking tests are utilizing knowledge not in any one particular professional area, but problems where they have to utilize the thought process of critical thinking, and we apply these when the students enter and when we leave we look at them, the growth, and there is tremendous growth. And our faculty are using this data to constantly go back and reevaluate how they can add more. We just had faculty that returned from a national conference in California on critical thinking, and so our faculty is constantly pursuing. Those that go to these meetings bring new, revolutionary things back to the institution that are being incorporated across the nation, and we adapt those, the best ones that fit our needs, here at this institution.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

You anticipated one of my questions was, of course, it’s always -- in many academic settings the faculty is complete, an individual faculty member is completely free to structure his or her classroom as he desires, but, you know, to have it as part of the institutional expectation that you integrate techniques to foster critical thinking or any other kind of, you know, complex cognitive goal, I mean, that’s really very important.

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Yes, and our students are evaluated -- I mean, the students evaluate the programs and the courses every semester, institutional research. They evaluate the faculty and the course, and we pay a great deal of attention to those evaluations, and the faculty does, too. If there is a problem in the course or some particular aspect of the course, or a particular lecture that is not as effective, we take action on those to correct them, and to improve, because our goal is to constantly improve the education that we’re providing.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

When I was speaking with Dr. Tomasovic yesterday, he said that MD Anderson hires about 40% of the graduates from --

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Yes.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

-- this program, and the rest go... Do you have a sense of where they’re placed?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Yeah. Only 10% -- well, truly 9% -- leave the state of Texas, and that’s a ten year average. There’s only 9% leaving the state. As Dr. Tomasovic said, the greatest majority fill attrition needs and growth needs within the Institution. About another 10, 15% are in Houston area hospitals, and then the rest in the state of Texas.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

Hmm. I’m just wondering if that helps continue to give you ammunition to justify to the legislature the importance --

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Yes, certainly, certainly. When you are -- only 10% of the students that you’re training leave the state of Texas, 90%, 91% in the case of our school, are staying here in Texas, we’re educating the Texans for Texans.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

Texans and the health of Texas.

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Yes.

Chapter 05: Establishing the School of Allied Health Professions: Challenges and A Commitment to Excellence and Critical Thinking

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