Lighting the spark

DMU's OMM fellows provide a demonstration for Waukee APEX students.
DMU’s OMM fellows demonstrate osteopathic manual medicine for Waukee APEX students.

There’s a new course offered at Des Moines University, but registration is closed to anyone older than 18. Twelve high schoolers meet daily in Ryan Hall 281 from noon to 2:30 p.m. for Exploration of Health Sciences and Medicine through a unique partnership between DMU and the Waukee, IA, Community School District.

The class is part of Waukee Aspiring Professional Experience (APEX), an innovative education collaboration that embeds high school students in the Des Moines business community. Students learn from business leaders in a real-world setting and work on authentic projects that add value to the partners. They get to explore their passions and career possibilities while acquiring the professional skills that area employers need.

“When we go to the businesses, whether it’s in medicine or insurance, that’s the stuff they want,” says Holly Showalter, Ph.D., instructor of the course at DMU. “The universal constructs are critical thinking, creativity, productivity and accountability, flexibility and adaptability, collaboration and complex communication. It doesn’t matter if you’re a surgeon or a bank teller, you need all those things.”

The health sciences course is unique in that it’s housed at a medical school instead of a local hospital or clinic. That’s by design. DMU offers access to research, professors, clinicians and medical education that other organizations cannot.

Waukee APEX students perform EKGs on each other
APEX students learn much more about health professions on the DMU campus than they ever could with a traditional classroom and textbook.

“We could bring speakers to Waukee High School, but you don’t feel like you’re actually in the environment unless you’re here on campus,” Showalter says. “It gives us access to professionals and gives students that feel of being in medical school. It’s a more authentic experience.”

“We had been looking for a more strategic engagement with the schools,” says Sue Huppert, DMU vice president of external and government affairs. “This is a great program to let students think not just about college, but also the kind of career they want to pursue when they get to college. Why not take those scholars and really direct them?”

As the title implies, exploration is the number-one goal of the course. Students are exposed to as many health professions as Showalter can cram into the semester. One day, students are hooking each other up to electrocardiograms in Ryan Hall. The next, they’re at Mercy Medical Center learning about radiology. The curriculum is fluid. The class can look drastically different from one semester to the next, depending on the career interests of the students and new opportunities for exploration.

Whether students rule out a hundred career options or discover their dream job, they are better prepared for college and more focused in their pursuits. And it only takes one experience to light a spark.

“It’s nice to be at DMU. We get to go to seminars, have OMM demonstrations and experience the stuff we would never get to learn about if we were at our school,” says Amy Patel, a Waukee High School junior.

“We went to a presentation on race and the Refugee Mental Health Conference [on campus]. I thought both of those were so eye-opening,” adds her classmate Mary McCormick. “I never thought I’d be interested in that but now I am, and I want to see how to make it part of my career.”

The course is only in its third semester but has been in such high demand that APEX leaders added a second offering across town at Mercy College of Health Sciences. They’ve adjusted the schedule at DMU as well, moving it from mornings to early afternoons to take advantage of the plethora of presentations, speakers and events on campus over the noon hour.

“They wanted to have more exposure to DMU students and activities. But our students are in classes for the most part in the mornings, so it didn’t work well,” Huppert says. “Now that it’s an afternoon class, our students can come help out and mentor them. They love talking to the medical students!”

Waukee APEX students learn OMM
Through hands-on exploration of health careers, APEX students can make more informed decisions about their future.

Interactions with health professions students make a huge impression on the APEXers, Showalter says. She praises DMU students for their willingness to help out, whether by answering questions about college, leading campus tours or demonstrating their medical skills.

“I like working with high school kids because I want to expose people at a younger age to the different options in medicine they might not know they have,” says Lauren McCarthy, D.P.M.’17. “Podiatry is a field not a lot of people know about. Almost every single one of my classmates stumbled into the field. We want to get the kids engaged and show them that podiatry can be cool; it’s not just gross feet.”

McCarthy and her classmates presented in both semesters last year, educating the APEXers about podiatric medicine and showing them how to suture. When a couple students took an interest in podiatry after the sessions, McCarthy stayed connected to APEX and took on a mentoring role.

“I think they enjoyed what we had to say and being shown something different. I try to invite them to events we have on campus whenever there are opportunities,” she says. “I connected them to different students who were interested in similar specialties to see what the schooling differences would be and just answer questions about college or getting into medical school.”

Those connections make all the difference. Whether students rule out a hundred career options or discover their dream job, they are better prepared for college and more focused in their pursuits. And it only takes one experience to light a spark, like it did for Waukee junior Meri Brick. She enrolled in APEX with a general interest in health care but no clear career plans. After a month in the class and exposure to many health careers, a recent visit to the OMM lab really piqued her interest. Brick is now exploring osteopathic medicine as a career, giving DMU its first candidate for the D.O. Class of 2025.

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