Diving into Columbia’s New MPH Curriculum

Carolyn Vopelak, MPH ‘14, in the Department of Population and Family Health

Eighteen modules, 5 studios, ISP, L&I, cohorts in the core, then a discipline, a certificate and a practicum!!? Take a breath- it’s going to be ok.

It’s overwhelming to hear all of that. And did Columbia just make up its own language? Not exactly, but it did revamp its MPH core curriculum and was ready to unleash it, in all of its glory, upon my incoming class this fall.

Before orientation I knew that there was a new core curriculum and that we had been placed in cohorts (lecture groups of 90-100 students), and that the curriculum would be demanding. I was eager to start the Columbia MPH program but also apprehensive. What would this new curriculum look like?

Then I arrived at orientation at the end of August and received more details and my schedule. Basically, I would take 18 modules (mini classes) on different topics in the core to provide a solid base in public health. In addition to these lecture-style classes, a weekly seminar-style class with about 20 students called Integration of Science and Practice (ISP) gives us the opportunity to consider and discuss public health themes in a more intimate and interactive setting.

So after learning the basic structure of the new core, I thought, OK this is starting to make much more sense. But 18 different “mini classes,” each with a different syllabus and lecturer?!

I think this is a good opportunity to point out that we don’t take all 18 modules simultaneously; rather, the modules have been arranged in such a way that lessons in each new module build off of what we have learned in previous modules. At any one point we are taking around 5 modules. I must say, whoever did the scheduling for this is some sort of a logistical mastermind. Seriously.

And it works. We’re about halfway through the semester and have already completed 8 modules. By the second or third week of classes we had already completed the Ethics of Public Health, Human Rights, and History of Public Health modules. It’s great that we received this all at once in the first weeks of classes instead of in a traditional linear schedule throughout the semester, because so many of the following modules have drawn on key concepts from these courses.

My Health Economics class with Prof. Tal Gross, who won a teaching award last year.

Key Parts of the Program
My favorite part about the new core is the professors. Mailman has its best ones teaching introductory classes! Every time that we begin a new module, I’m excited to see which new face will walk up to the podium. I google my professors beforehand to see who they are. In fact, many of the professors from the core have won awards for teaching excellence, so I know that I’m in good hands. Having so many instructors is a great way to meet professors from other departments, learn about their different areas of research, and experience their teaching styles.

Being in a cohort is pretty nice too. While 90 students is not a small group, we are together for over four hours a day, five days a week, so those faces all become familiar. I think that being in that cohort environment makes students feel more comfortable as time moves on, making us more likely to speak and participate in class. And though the first-year students have been separated into four different cohorts, we have the same lectures and readings- so I can still make nerdy public health jokes with my roommates who are in different cohorts.

I’m really pleased with how integrated the new core is and that I am already starting to make connections between the different topics. Also, having so many different modules and professors has been a great introduction to the different disciplines of public health and has given me insight into which classes I might be interested in taking during the remainder of my time at Columbia.

So far I’ve most enjoyed the Life Course module and (much to my surprise) the Quantitative Foundations module. Life Course grabbed my interest because it told very relevant public health stories and we examined case studies that seemed to incorporate everything: social sciences, biology, history, and research methods. It was the class that turned on a light for me and showed me how these separate modules are interrelated.

Quantitative Foundations is one of our most demanding and challenging classes, but I’m actually really enjoying it. My lecturer, Dr. Pavlicova, makes biostatistics and epidemiology interesting. I really like working through problem sets with classmates and getting that feeling of accomplishment when I finish a problem. Plus I know that the skills I’m learning aren’t just for a test, they’re crucial to research and policy. So while the new core is tough, I believe that it will pay off in the end.

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