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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University February 18, 2008 | Vol. 37 No. 22
 
Undergrad Interest Sparks New Class Focusing on Urban Health

James Goodyear teaches the new one-credit course, Urban Health and Advocacy, co-organized by students Adam Milam and Sonia Sarkar. The speaker-focused class filled up in less than two days.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Back in the fall, a dozen Homewood undergraduates met to discuss a speaker series for the spring term focused on urban health issues. The students, mostly public health studies majors and student organization leaders, were trying to hash out how many speakers to bring in, where and when they would speak and, of course, who might agree to come.

At one point, a deep-sounding voice — which belonged to James Goodyear, associate director of the undergraduate Public Health Studies Program — piped up from the back of the room.

"What about offering a for-credit course wrapped around the speaker series?" Goodyear asked those gathered. What followed, he said, was an awkward silence.

"I wasn't sure what to think — if they were excited about the idea, or if I had just laid the biggest egg in the world," Goodyear said.

They were excited, and with that the die was cast for Urban Health and Advocacy, a new one-credit course to introduce students to topics in the field, with a special emphasis on Baltimore City and the role of socioeconomic factors associated with health.

The course, which debuted this spring term, centers on a series of speakers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Urban Health Institute and the community.

Goodyear said that he wanted to expose students to urban health and also take advantage of the university's location and expertise in this area.

"There is a huge opportunity for us to educate on urban health issues with Baltimore right here, coupled with the resources of the Bloomberg School and the Urban Health Institute," he said. "My bigger hope is that Johns Hopkins undergrads can focus on urban health during their time here. There are plenty of students interested in international health, infectious disease and the such — quite understandably and rightfully so — but in urban health there is profound and important work that needs to be done."

The response to the course offering was overwhelming.

The course, capped at 50, filled up in less than two days, despite the fact it was made available after the official registration period and students had to sign up in person. Goodyear said they could have easily topped the 100 mark.

"It's exciting, and those who registered are not all public health studies majors," he said. "It just shows that Johns Hopkins students have a strong interest in these issues."

The distinguished list of speakers for the class includes Joshua Sharfstein, Baltimore City health commissioner; Chris Gibbons, associate director of the Urban Health Institute; Phil Leaf, professor in the Department of Mental Health in the School of Public Health; Jeff Singer, president and CEO of Health Care for the Homeless; and Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Healthcare for All Coalition.

Goodyear said that two students, junior Sonia Sarkar and senior Adam Milam, were instrumental in organizing the course, recruiting the speakers and working out the logistics for each event. Sarkar and Milam are both public health studies majors and co–campus coordinators of the Baltimore chapter of Project Health, a national volunteer program for undergraduates that was introduced to Baltimore in fall 2006.

Sarkar said that Goodyear has been "incredibly supportive" of the students' efforts and praised him for making this course a reality.

"We were a little skeptical of the idea at first; there are already so many speaker series on campus, and making one part of a for-credit course didn't seem doable," she said. "But it's worked out wonderfully, as now we have this large captive and engaged audience for a new speaker every week. It couldn't have worked out better."

In addition to the speakers, the course will offer a bus tour of the city that features an extended site visit to the 88-acre redevelopment effort by East Baltimore Development Inc., located just north of the medical campus, and a viewing of Unnatural Causes, a four-hour documentary series on PBS that explores America's racial and socioeconomic inequities in health.

For their final project, each student will present a photo essay of what urban health means to him or her.

"We're hoping that the students will get really creative with the projects," Goodyear said. "That's the great thing about a course like this — we can let them loose to be creative and really use their imagination."

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