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Even education can get flabby. The same classes taught by the same professors for years can lose tone without new intellectual exercises. So how does Columbia University Health Sciences keep its educational programs in shape? By employing an education-oriented fitness center, Columbia's Center for Education Research and Evaluation. Schools pay to be a member and the center helps evaluate and improve courses and curricula and assists with accreditations.

In fact, most recently, the center played an important role in the accreditations of the School of Dental and Oral Surgery and the Mailman School of Public Health.

Armed with doctorates in cognitive and educational psychology and sociology, the center's leaders serve as "personal trainers" for three schools at the Health Sciences campus, says Dr. Hilary J. Schmidt, assistant vice president, associate dean, and director of the center. The center, part of the Office of Scholarly Resources located in the Augustus C. Long Library, has three members: SDOS, Mailman, and the College of Physicians & Surgeons. The School of Nursing, which employs expertise of its own faculty to evaluate the nursing curriculum, has collaborated with the center in the past.

"We are creating a culture in which educational programs are informed by research and best practices from education and cognitive science," Dr. Schmidt says. "We partner with faculty in educational research to help evaluate the effectiveness of educational programs."

Dr. Pat Molholt, associate vice president and associate dean for Scholarly Resources, recruited Dr. Schmidt to establish the center in 1994. The center was created partly in response to a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant to update the methodology and focus of the medical school program. The membership structure enables the center to grow according to demand for its services, as the membership fees pay for a "personal trainer" for the school and part of support staff salary. The organization's design also keeps the center accountable to members because they can drop out if they are not satisfied.

The center's faculty consists of Dr. Schmidt, Dr. Ayxa Calero-Breckheimer, assistant professor of clinical educational psychology in SDOS and head of curriculum evaluations, and Dr. Ian Lapp, assistant professor of clinical public health at Mailman and project leader for faculty development and methods.

Each center faculty member typically works with one school while also collaborating with the rest of the center staff. Dr. Schmidt acts as liaison to P&S; Dr. Calero-Breckheimer works mostly with SDOS; and Dr. Lapp collaborates mainly with the Mailman School. The center is recruiting a replacement for Dr. Vicki LeBlanc, formerly the center's project leader for education research and measurement, who assisted in developing education research projects.

The center's specialists collaborate mainly with academic deans, curriculum committees, and course directors. Dr. Schmidt, for example, works with Dr. Ronald E. Drusin, professor of clinical medicine and associate dean for curricular affairs at P&S. One of her projects is an effort with Dr. Christine Williams, professor of clinical pediatrics at P&S, to enhance the linkage of nutrition science throughout the four-year P&S curriculum.

Dr. Calero-Breckheimer's work with the dental school to develop a system to evaluate the education it provides received commendations in the school's successful accreditation in September 2002. She worked closely with Dr. Ira Lamster, SDOS dean, Dr. Letty Moss-Salentijn, the Dr. Edwin S. Robinson Professor and associate dean for academic affairs at SDOS, Dr. Martin Davis, associate dean of students and alumni affairs at SDOS, and the accreditation committee in the two-year accreditation process.

In public health, Dr. Lapp assisted Dr. Andrew Davidson, professor and senior vice dean at Mailman, in refining learning objectives for the school's departments and master and doctor of public health programs. The work helped Mailman's accreditation, which was renewed in October 2002.

Besides accreditations and curriculum changes, Dr. Schmidt and her colleagues often help course directors design a new class or improve an existing one by defining educational objectives, conducting teaching workshops for instructors, and then assessing whether students learn the required competencies. The center staff helped start the P&S Primary Care Clerkship, enhance the Mailman introductory epidemiology course, and improve the P&S radiology course for second-year students.

The variety of projects has enabled Health Sciences faculty, with center faculty, to publish research on education ranging from teaching physical diagnosis to the educational implications of findings in cognitive psychology. As the center staff grew, Health Sciences faculty increased its output of education-related peer-reviewed articles and major conference presentations five-fold.

Dr. Schmidt is excited about education research and the growth at Health Sciences. "There is a real commitment to education at the university and we look forward to helping schools continue to meet their educational goals," Dr. Schmidt says.


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