Twenty-two students crowd around Dr. William Lydiatt in their classroom at the Michael F. Sorrell Center for Health Science Education. Lydiatt, professor and vice chair of the department of otolaryngology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, holds a replica of a human skull, to begin teaching the class about the muscles and bones of the head and neck. He uses anecdotes from his 18 years of experience as a surgeon at UNMC to help students understand his course, Medical Decision Making.
But these aren’t med students. They aren’t even college students. They are high school juniors and seniors enrolled in UNMC’s High School Alliance program, now in its fourth year of offering students a chance to leave their high school campuses and head to the UNMC campus for an education outside the reach of the average high school curriculum.
“The autonomy to check out of their high school campus, get themselves here, walk around a college campus, really increases their confidence,” said Heidi Kaschke, the program coordinator.
Fifty-five students from 11 area school districts meet every day from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. for classes. Mondays are focus days, where all 55 students gather to listen to speakers from across the fields of health sciences. The students are then split up for their two chosen classes, one on Tuesday and Thursday, the other on Wednesday and Friday. There are different class offerings for each semester in the yearlong program.
Carlos Vera is a junior at Omaha South High School. Last semester, he took courses on community health and microbiology. Vera said he is undecided about his career, but the past semester gave him ideas about where he might be headed.
“I’d like to go into something with community health, maybe,” Vera said. “I like working in the lab, I know that now.”
This semester, Vera has anatomy as one of his courses. His motto is to hope for the best, but expect the worst — he has a slight fear of blood in a class that dissects a human cadaver.
“I don’t know how that is going to go down,” he said.
Classmates Miranda Schilling and Megan McClanahan don’t share Vera’s concern. Schilling, a senior at Millard North High School, is excited. The opportunity to dissect a cadaver isn’t a part of high school anatomy classes, and many undergraduate programs don’t offer it, either, she said.
McClanahan, a senior at Papillion-La Vista South, said she was prepared when she arrived in the class. The class actually takes place in the UNMC anatomy lab. It’s hard to miss the white body bags when first entering.
“I think I knew what to expect,” McClanahan said. She said she has enjoyed the interactive nature of the course as opposed to lecture. But there’s a lot of work outside the classroom.
“Before you come to class, get to know what you’re going to talk about in class,” she said. “Otherwise you’re just going to be kind of confused or you’ll have to be on your toes the whole time.”
Lydiatt has the same expectation of his students in his Medical Decision Making class. He assigns readings for homework so class time can be spent in discussion and has changed his curriculum over the years to include more interactivity and small group time, less lecture and Anton Chekhov.
“It isn’t a class where you’re going to learn literature, or art or anything specific and in-depth, but my goal is to use all of the different types of understanding,” Lydiatt said. “Then talk about ethical issues and decision making.”
Lydiatt begins by teaching his students about head and neck anatomy so they understand his stories and understand proceedings during visits to his clinic.
He assigns Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” because it presents multiple perspectives of death. He brings in poet Ted Kooser, who will talk to students about his battle with throat cancer. And artist Mark Gilbert gives a class on drawing to teach students about observing patients.
“The good news is, we treat you like an adult,” Lydiatt tells students during the first class. “The bad news is, we treat you like an adult.”
Dr. Gordon Todd has taught anatomy courses at UNMC for the past 39 years and for the High School Alliance students for the past three. He said one of the benefits of the program is that it gives students an idea of the rigors of college. Like Lydiatt, he has changed the format of his alliance class to include more discussion and fewer lectures.
However, Todd said teaching the students has been fun. He is retiring at the end of this year and said one of his regrets will be not continuing with the program.
“It keeps you stimulated trying to come up with new approaches where the medical student curriculum really hasn’t changed,” Todd said.
The alliance program is primarily funded by the Sherwood Foundation, which invests in social justice initiatives that aim to enhance the quality of life in Omaha.
Because of the foundation, the alliance can provide students with polos for uniforms, give gas cards to students based on need and distance, organize activities for current and graduated students, and work with professors and three teachers from Omaha Public Schools — Ashlie Nelson, Jaynie Bird and Michele Merrill.
Another benefit of the program is that students are given the opportunity to shadow working professionals on Saturdays.
“We’re trying to expose these students to the wide variety of careers,” Kaschke said. “It’s not just being a doctor.”
Kaschke said students can shadow where they think their interests lie, but the program also sends them to shadow in jobs they haven’t considered.
“It really opened my eyes,” said Andrea Bierman, a sophomore pre-med student at Hastings College.
Bierman participated in the program during her senior year at Millard North in 2011-12. Although she was set on becoming a doctor, she is also considering becoming a nurse practitioner after shadowing during the High School Alliance.
Bierman said her senior year classload wasn’t too hard, but she had to learn time management to balance her education at both campuses, which prepared her for studying in college.
“I haven’t pulled an all-nighter in college yet, because I learned in high school not to,” Bierman said.