Bringing classroom knowledge to the community

Adela Talbot // Western NewsSarah McLean, middle, a professor in the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, taught a new Community Engaged Learning course this year and her students, including Nicholas Mehta, left, partnered with Middlesex-London Emergency Medical Services to create a business plan for more effective response to lift-assist calls. They worked with with Dustin Carter, right, superintendent of community paramedicine with the Middlesex-London Paramedic Service.

The one thing Stephanie Hayne Beatty hears most often from students enrolled in a Community Engaged Learning (CEL) course is the class helps “learning come to life.”

“The whole idea is students are able to take their classroom knowledge into the community and take that community experience and apply it back into the classroom,” said Hayne Beatty, Associate Director (Experiential Learning) with the Student Success Centre (SSC).

But the benefits of, and praise for, the program – run by the SSC – extend beyond Western’s gates, she added. Late last year, CEL was recognized with a 2017 Pillar Community Innovation Award in the category of Community Impact.

The program integrates community service with a specific course curriculum. It aims to help students strengthen their sense of civic responsibility and understanding of social justice, while giving them hands-on experiences to connect what they learn in the classroom to what happens outside it. There are nearly 50 CEL courses offered across each faculty, and the number continues to grow.

Faculty members approach the SSC with a course they are either teaching, or hoping to teach, in partnership with a community organization. SSC aligns the course outcomes with a need identified by partners in the community. For credit, students complete a placement or project defined by the community organization.

Sarah McLean, a professor in the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, approached the SSC last year after realizing there was no CEL component offered for the medical school’s undergraduate students – a gap she thought she could fill with a new course, Healthcare Challenges and Scientific Inquiry for the 21st Century.

McLean, who teaches in the Bachelor of Medical Sciences program, has a number of students who are pursuing joint degrees with Ivey Business School and who continue to professional programs after graduation. She saw an opportunity to take a bright and driven group of students and employ their skills for good in the London community.

“We thought, what are the issues in London when it comes to health care and literacy, social determinants of health, addiction and mental health problems – and how can we help?” she said.

The SSC connected her students with a number of community organizations, including Middlesex-London Emergency Medical Services (EMS) to create a business plan that could bring a Community Paramedicine Vulnerable Patient Program to the area.

McLean’s students picked up on an EMS project initiated last year in Health Sciences professor Aleksandra Zecevic’s Gerontology in Practice CEL course in which students worked with paramedics to address high call volume in its Lift Assist program.

“A lift assist is a non-essential call to 911 requesting paramedics to support someone to either mobilize or transition from Position A to Position B. Paramedics do this because of other policies and procedures in our health-care sector that restrict other organizations from doing that – the default is 911,” explained Dustin Carter, superintendent of community paramedicine with the Middlesex-London Paramedic Service.

This type of call is not necessarily urgent, but it happens often enough to take an emergency vehicle out of service temporarily. Last year, through CEL, he partnered with students in Zecevic’s class to do data analysis and find the true number of calls and how they affected EMS service in the county.

“Last year, we did 1,895 lift assist calls. That is 63 days worth of one ambulance being taken off the road and we only have daily staffing of 25 – and not all of those are in the city; some are in the county. But when we dove deeper, we saw there’s about 300 repeat callers that generate those calls,” Carter noted.

“I had an innovative solution how to better address this – but the term was over. I lost that amazing, untapped resource from the student body.”

Through the SSC, McLean stepped in to help Carter draft a business case to offer a potential solution to the Lift Assist program demands.

“It’s called The Road to 272 – taking those (repeat call) individuals and bringing them into a remote monitoring program and providing them with Bluetooth devices, fall sensors, Amazon Echoes, so if they have an event, rather than defaulting to 911 and taking an emergency response vehicle off the road, it goes to this preventive crew that can respond appropriately in a timely fashion, but take the time on scene to do an in-depth assessment, documenting and sharing that info, in real time, to health providers so we can start to tackle the problem right then and there,” Carter explained.

“We have a draft grant application to the London Community Foundation for a Vitality grant so we can look at staffing the human-resource piece of this to expand the remote program and seek sustained funding beyond that.”

Both last year’s and this year’s classes have had the opportunity to present and publish their work on the Lift Assist project.

“This course was one of the most valuable learning experiences I have been a part of during my time at Western,” said Nicholas Mehta, who was in McLean’s class this year. “As a dual degree student with Ivey’s HBA program, there has been some opportunity to work with outside businesses and conduct analysis and provide recommendations, but I definitely did not sense the same type of conviction as I did with this project.

“I have spent the past two summers as an investment banking analyst working in teams to advise large corporations on financial and corporate strategy. Although I contributed to many projects, there wasn’t a significant level of connection, given the lack of interaction with the client. In this CEL project, I felt I was making an actual contribution to the world.”

In the end, this is what the CEL component is all about, McLean added.

“This is practical knowledge and we are getting beyond the Ivory Tower of, ‘Know this; know that’ approach. Knowledge doesn’t matter unless you can apply it, unless you can help the community. There’s such a need in London, we have so many motivated students and an awesome population that wants to contribute. We need to tap into that more,” she said.

“We all know there are divides between the university and the community. It doesn’t always seem as if we are the most friendly, or the most inviting, or the most collaborative place. What this (program) has done has really changed that perception. It shows people at Western, and faculty in particular, want to work with the community and see what value community organizations add to student learning,” Hayne Beatty said.