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The goal of the Mailman School of Public Health's introductory and now redesigned epidemiology course is to captivate its 250 students from day one. This year, New York City health commissioner and former Mailman professor Dr. Thomas Frieden will discuss bioterrorism and other post-9/11 public health issues as a guest lecturer on the first day of class.

Having a guest speaker to start the semester is one of many innovations Mailman faculty made to its course on epidemiology—which examines the causes, distribution, and control of disease in populations—since they set out to revise the class's curriculum about four years ago. To invigorate the course, course directors incorporated new concepts in epidemiology practice, enhanced the course Web page, and provided teaching instruction for lecturers and seminar leaders.

Dr. Allan Rosenfield, Mailman dean, and Dr. Andrew Davidson, senior vice dean, provided the impetus and resources to revamp the course at around the time Dr. Ezra Susser, professor at Mailman, became chairman of the school's epidemiology department. They wanted to focus more attention on education and teaching, knowing research at a research institution often grabs the limelight. "Introductory epidemiology was the logical first choice for improvement because it is the largest class and one of the most important courses in the school," Dr. Davidson says. Epidemiology is one of five core courses Mailman students take.

Dr. Susser made enriching the 35-year-old class a major priority and collaborated with the course's leaders, who now include Dr. Daniel Herman, assistant professor of psychiatry (P&S) and epidemiology (Mailman) and course director; Dr. Lydia Zablotska, assistant director for the course; and Dr. Ian Lapp, assistant professor at Mailman and project leader in the Center for Education Research and Evaluation.

The course "lost its shine" over the years because the class size grew and the content became outdated, Dr. Susser says. Initially, the course focused on risk factors for chronic disease, such as smoking, and how such factors led to disease. Now the course integrates the study of chronic and infectious diseases, such as AIDS, and how diseases are transmitted among populations. "We are increasing the emphasis on societal factors as a cause of illness instead of only looking at individuals as the cause of disease," Dr. Susser says.

On the new course Web site, reading materials, lecture slides, and news links allow students to prepare for lectures in advance. The Web-based distribution of material saved so much time an extra lecture was added to the course. Students also can listen to previous lectures from the Web site. Mailman faculty are working with Columbia's Center for New Media Teaching and Learning to improve a text-based outbreak simulation on the Web site with fictional video news broadcasts and other Web material.

Besides boosting technology, the faculty bolstered its commitment to teaching in the full lecture class and the smaller seminars. In response to student complaints that seminar leaders were uninspiring, Dr. Lapp led workshops on innovative teaching techniques for the seminar leaders, who are typically assistant professors and graduate students. He and Dr. Herman also meet weekly with seminar faculty to discuss the upcoming session and with full-class lecturers as needed. Drs. Susser and Herman support teachers by attending lectures and, along with the lecturers, go to many seminars to assist the leaders.

The efforts have paid off. Last year, students rated the course No. 1 among core courses and one of the top Mailman courses, a marked increase over prior years, Dr. Davidson says. In 2001, 70 percent of the students gave the class an "excellent" rating, up from 28 percent in 2000.

"Epidemiology is the science around which public health revolves," Dr. Herman says. "We’re giving students a foundation in epidemiology they can apply regardless of the area they ultimately specialize in."