Many high school students are unaware of careers in public health and that there are many options available for those interested in improving health and preventing disease beyond being a doctor or a nurse.
The Rutgers School of Public Health developed PHocus (Public Health: Outbreaks, Communities, and Urban Studies) to introduce high school students to the interdisciplinary field of public health, as well as to promote population and individual health. The objectives of the PHocus program are to: 1) enhance high school students’ science literacy and health literacy skills using public health as the context for learning; 2) provide an opportunity for participants to interact with public health professionals and researchers, 3) ensure that participants become aware of a variety of public health careers, and 4) teach participants steps they can take to improve their own health.
During each full week session, students participate in a variety of experiences, such as mock outbreaks, hands-on population health and community disease activities, a field trip to a farm, and conversations with public health researchers and practitioners. Each day focuses on a different aspect of public health, such as: building an understanding of epidemiology; exploring urban and global health issues, including environmental health issues and a Global Health Fair; examining nutrition and food systems; discovering public health careers; and exploring emerging public health issues.
Developed and led by Laura Liang, DrPH (a health educator), and Marian Passannante, PhD (an epidemiologist), PHocus instruction involves active learning in large groups coupled with small group activities which makes the program engaging for students entering high school through recent high school graduates. The Rutgers School of Public Health has hosted week-long PHocus sessions in the summers of 2018 and 2019, available at both the school’s Piscataway, and Newark, New Jersey locations. PHocus was offered remotely in 2021 and again in person at both the Piscataway and Newark locations this summer. The Newark sessions target recruitment from high schools with underserved, minority, and/or economically disadvantaged students, and tuition for these students was supported through external funding.
Since the 2018 PHocus Summer Experiences, 224 students have participated in these one-week sessions, representing over 100 high schools. Participants rate the experience very highly; on a 4-point scale (1=strongly disagree; 4= strongly agree), the median score for the program being a worthwhile experience was 4.0. When asked about how they intend to change their habits and/or behaviors as a result of PHocus, one student noted “I plan to do more community outreach regarding public health because it starts with kids like me to make a difference for a healthier lifestyle.”
The Rutgers School of Public Health even has a couple of current Master of Public Health students who first became inspired to pursue public health when they participated in PHocus. Rutgers School of Public Health faculty, staff, and students, as well as external stakeholders, eagerly volunteer to be part of the program, suggesting that this educational program can be reproduced at other schools and programs of public health.