L. Michael Brunt, MD, Professor of Surgery, shows MMS students how to use laparoscopic instruments. Photo courtesy of Washington University School of Medicine.

L. Michael Brunt, MD, Professor of Surgery, shows MMS students how to use laparoscopic instruments. Photo courtesy of Washington University School of Medicine.

Universities and research institutions are exploring new teaching approaches to educate the public about biomedical science. At Washington University in St Louis, the Mini-Medical School and Science On Tap programs are stimulating students to think about medicine and research. These programs are heavily and enthusiastically attended; they infuse the public with a remarkable amount of information, and yet the students request even more sessions to further satisfy their growing interest in medicine and science research.

Now in its eleventh year, Washington University School of Medicine’s Mini-Medical School (MMS; http://minimed.wustl.edu) provides the greater St Louis, MO, and Eastern Illinois community with the opportunity to learn more about medicine and to become better health care consumers. Students receive a behind-the-scenes look at the medical school and learn about diseases first hand from faculty experts. They can move away from potentially false information from the media or unverifiable internet resources.

The entire program consists of three 8-week sessions, each of which meets one night a week. Outside of the classroom time (Table 1), students can tour clinical and biomedical research facilities. They learn how to access information about a variety of medical topics at the Bernard Becker Medical Library, they see the latest therapeutic techniques used at the Rehabilitation Institute of St Louis and they explore the Genome Sequencing Center where the human genome was mapped, and where new medical applications of genome sequencing are being explored and many new species are decoded each year.

Table 1

Mini-Medical School curriculum

Mini-Medical School curriculum
Mini-Medical School curriculum

MMS was first conceived and developed by Dr John Cohen at the University of Colorado in Denver, in 1989. Although most MMSs are supported by medical schools, some are funded by hospitals or other organizations such as the RAND Corporation. At their peak of popularity in the late 1990s, about 80 MMSs were offered across the USA, with several more in Canada, Ireland and even one in Malta. Fewer MMS programs exist now. The NIH Office of Science Education previously tracked MMSs, but unfortunately, as of this writing, its website is outdated and many of the MMSs listed are no longer offered.

Washington University’s MMS remains a popular venue and each 8-week session has sold out since its inception in 1999. The cost of each course is US$125.00, which includes the syllabus, lectures, labs, tours and dessert. MMS presentations encompass a vast array of medical topics, from pancreatic cancer, Parkinson’s Disease and heart disease to medical ethics and business aspects of medicine. Complex material is tackled in an accessible style, with clarification of medical terms and interactive time for questions. Students experience labs and clinical situations from a hands-on approach, like a professional. For instance, the physical examination lab teaches students many aspects of conducting a physical exam, including the acquisition and interpretation of vital signs; head and neck exam; heart and lung exam; and abdominal exam. The anatomy lab enables students to ‘glove up’ and touch normal and diseased human organs, and the suture lab lets students test their level of surgical dexterity. In the final course, MMS III, students hear about diseases from doctors, as well as from patients themselves, and this leads to some of the most memorable evenings. The patients also enjoy sharing their personal stories at MMS III and seek to return each year.

Each MMS class has 115 students, with over 3500 graduates to date. Student backgrounds are diverse, including engineers, teachers, chief executive officers, artists, students, professors, lawyers and homemakers. A wide range of ages is represented, from teens to seniors. Students must be at least 15 years old to enroll, and our eldest enrolled student to date was 92 years old.

Several students have made a difference to the health of a loved one by noticing concerning symptoms and bringing the person to an emergency room in a timely fashion. Three students have used their newly acquired cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) skills to save a life. Most graduates report that they feel more comfortable asking their physicians questions and that they use their appointment time more productively, for example, by giving a good medical history. Many students prefer to return to Washington University School of Medicine/Barnes-Jewish Hospital for their medical care, often to see a physician they heard speak at MMS. Students frequently report that they are very excited to share their new knowledge with others. Lecture topics change somewhat each year, which has led several students to take the series a second or even a third time.

The Washington University School of Medicine strongly supports community education and has funded MMS since its inception, despite operating expenses that exceed the revenue from tuition. Upon completion of MMS I, II and III, the students have obtained a great deal of medical knowledge, as well as a better understanding of how hospitals operate and the difficult ethical issues facing doctors and patients. Students take MMS because they want to learn more about medicine. Some are caring for a loved one at home; others are stay-at-home parents wanting to be better informed; some always wanted to attend medical school, whereas others will be applying to medical school; and for others, the knowledge will help them in their careers, such as in venture capital or law. MMS graduates can become savvy medical consumers and ultimately lead healthier, more productive lives.

A complementary public science program available at no cost to the St Louis community is Washington University’s Science On Tap (http://scienceontap.wustl.edu). It is modeled after Café Scientifique (http://www.cafescientifique.org), a forum for discussing important and interesting scientific issues in an informal setting. Based on the first such cafes held in the UK, Café Scientifiques are held around the world, including in some remote rural villages; however, styles vary widely.

Science On Tap is in its fourth year and is held at the Schlafly Bottleworks in St Louis, a popular microbrewery that supports community events. On the last Wednesday of the month, it features presentations by Washington University faculty members outside the Medical School. Presentations are 25 minutes, followed by a lively, 1-hour discussion. PowerPoint is discouraged and only allowed to present crucial graphics. An average of 125 attendees fill the room with only an e-mail as a reminder. The varied subjects have included Plants and People – Is Your Beer Green by Barbara Schaal, PhD, Professor of Biology and Time Glows By: Watching Biological Clocks Tick in the Brain by Erik Herzog, Associate Professor of Biology. The diversity of attendees stimulates useful, cross-disciplinary discussions.

MMS and Science On Tap have both thrived because of Washington University’s strong belief in community outreach and education; the university’s dedicated and talented faculty who welcome the opportunity to disseminate their knowledge beyond the usual confines of academia; and because of the numerous members of the St Louis community who are always eager to learn more. The example set by these St Louis-based programs is indicative that medical and research institutions have much to offer their community.