The University of Colorado Mini Med School, founded at the University of Colorado Denver in 1989, has received local and national attention in publications ranging from the New York Times to Family Circle. In 2010 it completed its 21st session. Since then, we have heard about approximately 100 other Mini Med School programs being started at medical schools and universities around the world. Some of these have expanded the concept remarkably. McGill University, for example, has launched Mini-Music, Mini-Law, Mini-Science, and several other successful "Minis" using the same general format.
It began when the Chancellor asked John Cohen, a professor of immunology known for his love of teaching, to suggest an outreach program that would help our surrounding community get to know what was happening on our campus.
You need to know who your target audience is. We had planned originally to invite a group of people identified as potential donors, volunteers, supporters, etc., but a local newspaper ran the story ("Have You Always Wanted to Know What Your Doctor Knows?"), and we had more than 1,200 applicants before we even had a chance to mail out invitations. We then changed directions, aiming the series at the general public, and abandoning fund-raising as a primary goal.
The people who attend the eight-week program, do so for four reasons: They are genuinely interested in learning about health care; or they have a particular disease and want to ask questions about it; or they are coming because it sounds interesting and it is free, or they have a family member in the health field and want to understand what they are talking about. Several years ago, a newspaper ran an article featuring a very bright 12-year-old girl who came to all the classes; afterward, we were swamped with requests from high school and middle school students. In the past few years, we have partnered with the local high schools, and have about 200 of their students each evening, in a separate room on campus and accompanied by their own teachers.
We try hard to convince the audience that they can understand even the most arcane ideas if the speaker (or their doctor) will only take the time to explain it in everyday words. Many have told us that Mini Med School has changed, for the good, the way they interact with their health-care providers.
This is not a course of clinical lectures. We present something that only a medical school can: basic science as it relates to medicine. Some schools have packaged a random assortment of lectures (based it seems on the availability of willing speakers) for their Mini Med School, but this tends not to be a successful approach. We survey what a medical student learns during the first two years of an American or Canadian medical school, and arrange the talks so there is a sense of continuity. Other schools have varied the program, doing cardiology one year and cancer the next, for example.
In our first series, topics were cell biology, biochemistry and metabolism, molecular biology and genetic engineering, immunology, virology, neurosciences, endocrinology, and oncology. In response to audience feedback, topics in the second series of classes were anatomy and physiology, cell biology, molecular biology and genetics, immunology, virology, neurosciences, endocrinology, and cancer. Pharmacology and pathology were later additions. It does depend to some extent on the expertise of your best teachers, and their availability.
First of all, you need a dedicated, if not a fanatic, an organizer who will make the program his or her own. This is NOT something a Dean can tell a secretary, however talented, to arrange! Ideally, the organizer will be one of the teachers, so that any advice he or she gives the other teachers will be taken seriously.
The teachers, all volunteers, make or break the program. The lecturers are either PhDs or MDs, who have to be able to explain things in simplified, but not condescending language. This requires good judgment and lots of experience; in general, the teachers who have been faculty members for a while are better.
It is no good to say, "Retinoblastoma's etiology involves the inactivation of an anti-oncogene." It's just as bad to say, "Retinoblastoma happens when the good genes are outnumbered by the bad genes." You have to be able, if possible, to say instinctively, "Retinoblastoma is caused by the loss of both copies of a gene whose role seems to be to prevent tumors" and go on to consider why in the world evolution would have provided such genes and, more amazingly, others that actually cause cancer. You don't, obviously, have to cover everything, but what you do cover needs to constitute an engaging story. The audience has to be able to share in the excitement.
In our large hall, PowerPoint is an essential visual aid. We discourage slides that the speaker uses in his or her regular research talks because they're too technical, and there's usually too much data on them. Even slides made for "real" medical students should be modified to convey a single point, if necessary. All the slides JJ Cohen uses are made expressly for Mini Med School. I use images from Time Magazine (pictures of the team that did the first human gene therapy), Scientific American, Netter's atlases and textbooks; and I make a lot from Web page downloads and original drawings using Adobe Flash and Illustrator. For my anatomy and physiology talk, I bring a skeleton (reassuring the audience that it's plastic) and use him as a prop.
Humor helps a great deal, too. We entertain, but we also make the audience work hard to follow the concepts. At each lecture, we provide them with a hand-out (either a purpose-written text or copies of the PowerPoints) and a one-page bio of the speaker.
Lectures start at 7 p.m. and last until about 8 p.m., followed by a 30-minute question-and-answer session. As the moderator, JJ Cohen attends all talks to introduce the speakers. We used to provide coffee, punch or hot cider and cookies in the hour before the lecture, and the speaker would be there to answer questions or just chat; but budget constraints have precluded that.
Lectures start at 7 p.m. and last until about 8 p.m., followed by a 15-minute question-and-answer session. I try to introduce all the talks that I’m not actually giving. Coffee, punch or hot cider and cookies are provided in the hour before the lecture, and the speaker is there to answer questions or just chat.
On the last day, a graduation party is held and everyone is given a diploma.
In 1995 we started delivering the series by simulcast to Grand Junction, Colorado. This 2-way telephone-line based system was popular but very costly. In the last 10 years, we have used the Internet to send the lectures live to up to 15 sites around Colorado, adding 1,000 people to our audience (in addition to the 400 adults and 200 high school students on campus.) People at the remote sites email or Tweet their questions, which are read to the speaker for real-time responses during the question-and-answer session by volunteer medical students.
The cost is currently about $25,000/year; most of that is associated with the remote sites. We have not charged the audience any fees.
On the last day, a graduation party is held and everyone is given a "diploma". There is no continuing education credit given, but most attendees tell us they treasure the diploma anyway. When budgets were more generous we had hot and cold hors-d'oeuvres and fine desserts. Now we make do with soft drinks and cake from the local big-box store (which is actually delicious, and much appreciated, especially by our high school friends.)
Running the Mini Med requires teamwork. It is essential that it be the teachers’ program; they must decide the subjects and the format and who will teach. External pressure – to include a famous investigator who’s a poor teacher or someone’s favorite subject – must be resisted vigorously. If the teachers are in charge of the program, they will resist the organization’s natural tendency to market to the audience. The audience is highly sensitive to marketing and will stop attending.
The other teams should be from public or community relations if possible, and educational support services. PR does everything: invitations, publicity, admissions, mailings, food, diplomas, T-shirts. Without a great PR person as your partner, it will be difficult to manage. Some years ago PR withdrew its support (budget again) and the team we have assembled almost entirely of volunteers, who work extraordinarily hard for the love of the program. We are immeasurably aided by a team of second-year medical students, whose reward is a slice of pizza and a promise that we will "write them letters that will get them the residency of their choice". In many cases, they, and their parents have attended the Mini Med School themselves. Educational support services provide the hall, projectionists, engineers to run the satellite links, video camera operators, fax links, and remote site support. If all members of the team respect and trust each other, it will run like a dream.