At the Core

The School’s MPH Core Curriculum has evolved with the profession and continues to be the standard for public health education.

December 1, 2021

There are times when a class reading stops you in your tracks. Ben Steiger, MPH ’21, remembers one such moment during a course in the Columbia Mailman School MPH Core Curriculum (the Core), an integrated set of courses all first-year MPH students take. He read a study examining the poor health outcomes of children born in the United States to women with Arab-sounding names following September 11, 2001. The date made him flash back to his experience as a five-year-old on the day of the terrorist attacks, the toxic smoke blanketing New York City. The reading also conjured memories of another type of toxicity he had never before considered: “I remembered the jingoism of the period. It was everywhere, even among kids,” he says. The study struck a personal chord. “I asked myself, ‘How was I part of this?’” 

Like many of his classmates, Steiger came to Columbia Mailman School with health-related experience. In college, he was pre-med and minored in global health and spent two years working in a lab doing lung cancer research. But through his time in the Core, he realized that there were gaps in his understanding of lung health. As part of a group project, he and his classmates focused on asthma, connecting the dots between the biology of asthma, environmental triggers, and social forces that contribute to disproportionately high levels of the disease in communities of color. “You could say asthma is the result of cockroach allergens, which is correct, but it’s also incomplete,” he says. “These exposures happen as the result of deferred public housing maintenance, which is the result of structural racism. I learned to look beyond the proximate cause. Public health demands that you see the big picture.”

Aha moments like Steiger’s are common. In fact, the Core is designed to elicit them. Over two semesters, MPH students are equipped with the fundamentals of public health—its history and ethics, study and program design, and data science—along with opportunities to apply their knowledge to real-world problems such as asthma or COVID-19. Through the Core, students come to rethink what they know about the world and their place in it. While aspects of the Core are today de rigueur across schools of public health, when it was launched in 2012, the curricular redesign was a transformation in public health education. Creating the new instructional model required a reckoning with what the future would demand of public health leadership and how to best deliver that to students.

From the Beginning

At the very origins of academic public health, the field was mandated to both create essential knowledge and to train practitioners to solve real-world challenges based on science. In 1913, the Rockefeller Foundation sponsored a commission to assess the need for public health science and education in the United States. Two years later, the physician William H. Welch, MD (1875 P&S) of Johns Hopkins Hospital and Wickliffe Rose of the Rockefeller Foundation co-authored the report that made the case for a well-trained public health workforce and the need for new academic institutions dedicated to science and discovery to prevent disease, disability, and injury and improve the health of the public.  

In response, Columbia University created the DeLamar Institute of Public Health, in 1922. It started small, with just one course listed in the college bulletin. Its MPH program combined epidemiology, biostatistics, laboratory work, and a three-month internship in a public health department. After 1945, when the Institute became the School of Public Health, there was an influx of new students and of faculty scientists who would teach them. Columbia came to be regarded as the leading hospital administration program in the country. At the same time, the School innovated in many other areas. For example, it was the first to introduce methods from the social sciences into its curriculum, culminating in the creation of the Division of Sociomedical Sciences in 1968—the first such program of its kind in the country. Other subspecialities like environmental health sciences and reproductive and migrant health were initiated and grew in stature. The lens, from inception, was health in cities, especially New York, and global health. 

Public health education in the U.S. was born of the opportunities created by science to solve the health impacts of urbanization and industrialization. Dominant issues were safe water and food, infectious diseases, and workplace safety and health, and then women’s reproductive health and child health. The second half of the 20th century brought sweeping public health changes. HIV/AIDS, SARS, and other novel infectious diseases demanded capabilities for prevention and treatment, and the collaboration of public, private, and nonprofit partners. Chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease were on the rise around the world, as people survived infectious diseases and lived longer; they all required new cross-disciplinary approaches. As the School entered the 2000s, issues emerged with complex implications for public health: climate change, rapid urbanization in developing countries, and longer life spans coupled with emerging evidence that good health across our longer lives is possible. 

To align public health curricula with these evolving and interconnected needs for public health leadership and science, major reports in 2002 and 2003 by the Institute of Medicine urged that schools of public health become interdisciplinary in both education and their research. The National Institutes of Health, too, prioritized “cross-training students in multiple disciplines” in 2007 in the creation of its Interdisciplinary Research Consortia. By the time an international commission was convened in 2010 to review the education of public health professionals, it found “a slow-burning crisis.” The resulting report, published in The Lancet in 2011, said that public health education—along with medical and nursing programs—relied on “fragmented, outdated, and static curricula that produce ill-equipped graduates.” 

Transforming Public Health Education

Even before the Lancet report, the School’s efforts to change the curriculum were under way. Soon after Linda P. Fried, MD, MPH, became dean of the School in 2008, she began a strategic planning initiative to envision how the School could help solve the complex public health issues of the 21st century and train students for leadership on these issues across long careers. A new vision for education would need to take into account “what’s best for the field, what society needs from us to protect and improve millions of lives, and what a great school must do to get us there,” she said at the time. Students would need a broad understanding of public health and how to integrate their areas of focus into the big picture to have a scientific basis for decision-making and leadership.

And the teaching would need to be highly interdisciplinary. Like most schools of public health, the School was organized by academic departments, each with its own course offerings and requirements—a structure that didn’t easily lend itself to interdisciplinary approaches. “We weren’t the first people to notice the need to do things differently,” says Melissa D. Begg, ScD, dean of Columbia’s School of Social Work, who led implementation of the Core when she served as vice dean of education at Columbia Mailman School. “The people who employ our graduates had been talking about it. And when we looked at our graduates, many of the most accomplished among them cited interprofessional engagement as a key to their success.”

Forged through a two-and-a-half-year process with input from faculty, staff, students, and alumni, the new MPH Core Curriculum ushered in some of the most sweeping changes in U.S. public health education in decades. The process was led by Fried together with Begg and Sandro Galea, MD, DrPH ’03, then chair of the School’s Department of Epidemiology and now dean of the Boston University School of Public Health. The resulting curriculum integrated long-distinct specialties through interdisciplinary teaching and added other novel components that focus on innovation, leadership, working in teams, and applied experience. More than 20 certificate programs enable students to pursue focused training in areas ranging from health in aging to food to the climate’s effects on health to chronic disease prevention.

Tearing Down the Walls

The first step in the creation of the new MPH Core was to define the essential public health knowledge for the 21st century and then to ensure that all MPH students shared it: to teach the social sciences students to calculate, the biostatisticians to manage, and the healthcare managers to identify patterns of disease. Public health professionals needed a shared set of tools and perspectives—and the confidence to apply them.

The watchword of the Core is integration. Faculty instructors from across the School give students a shared foundation in the field, knitting together various specialty areas. Students then get a chance to apply their learning to real-world problems through case studies. Doing so helps them prepare for a summer practicum—a required internship completed between the first and second years. 

Students enter in cohorts averaging 100 in size, drawn from all departments. In their first semester, each group moves through 16 modules focused on broad areas known as “studios” that stack together like interlocking blocks: historical and ethical foundations of public health; social, biological, and environmental determinants of health; program planning and evaluation; global health perspectives; health systems; and research methods. In each studio, topics in multiple modules relate to one another: For example, students consider the ethics of data science, and the interaction between socioeconomic status and environmental risk factors. Fully half the credits toward the MPH come from outside students’ chosen academic department. “Public health problems aren’t solved through a single discipline,” says Fried. “Students have to understand the language, the evidence, and the perspective that comes from different disciplines shining their light on the same problems.” 

Take obesity. Its causes include globalization, cheaper prices for larger portion sizes, poor health education, increased reliance on cars over physical activity, the subsidization of corn, and industrialization that produces calorie-dense foods, food deserts, and challenges to affording healthy foods. Its solutions require all public health disciplines. 

Or COVID-19, which Leah Hooper, MST, senior director of educational initiatives, says acted as a “flashlight that exposes the ways public health isn’t just a set of discrete disciplines.” The pandemic illustrates the connections between the biology of infectious disease, who is at risk due to preexisting chronic disease and/or older age, willingness to follow public health guidelines, ethics of who is first in line for vaccination, and so on. “If you’re only in one lane, you miss the large-scale ramifications,” Hooper adds.

In smaller learning groups of 20, first-year students from various academic departments work together in a two-semester course called Integration of Science and Practice (ISP) taught by a team of 23 faculty members from across the School. They begin with a workshop called Self, Social, and Global Awareness, which explores identity, privilege, and power and how to develop the understanding essential for meaningful cross-cultural relationships. From the start, each group forges a bond and a set of ground rules that creates a safe space of mutual respect for discussions on topics like race, class, or sexual identity that can be deeply personal.

Throughout the Core, ISP learning groups consider case studies that relate both to historical and current complex public health issues from the field. They weigh competing points of view, write policy briefs, and learn skills such as persuasion and public speaking, often working in teams. One case, for example, is drawn from some states’ controversial decision to introduce an “abstinence-only-until-marriage” curriculum in schools. Another examines police violence and the effectiveness of various reforms. The critical feature of all cases is that there’s no one correct answer. “Students take a critical approach to look at complex issues from the perspective of different stakeholders,” says ISP lead instructor Helen de Pinho, MBBCh, associate dean of educational programs. “We want them to incorporate perspectives, argue a case, and understand a problem before launching into solutions.”

Adds de Pinho, “We want every student to feel comfortable flexing their public health muscles. When it’s working well, we guide the conversation and students take over.” Indeed, students learn the most when they are learning from each other. Nikhil Ramnarayan, MPH ’21, remembers, “Having our learning group community was so helpful. I got to hear from classmates with different interests and different life stories who were applying public health in ways I hadn’t imagined before. It was eye-opening.”

For all its updated content and emphasis on interdisciplinary study, it’s the leadership component of the MPH Core Curriculum that may be the most revolutionary. In the second semester, students engage in theories of leadership, role-playing, simulations, case analysis, and group work to learn team leadership and management, communication, negotiation, and conflict resolution. Guest speakers share their own often idiosyncratic paths to leadership, which help students see how varied public health careers can be. “You don’t have to have aspirations to be a dean or health commissioner,” says Matthew Perzanowski, PhD, MPH, an associate professor of Environmental Health Sciences who has taught the course since it was first offered. “Students learn about personal leadership and how to interact with others in the workplace to accomplish what they set out to do.” At the conclusion of the course, students present their own leadership credos—a short pitch of the sort they might give in a job interview that briefly touches on their background, motivations, values, and goals.

From the student perspective, the Core is an intense experience—not only because the material is demanding and they learn at a rapid clip, but also because they are forced to switch gears fast, from thinking like an epidemiologist to thinking like a sociologist to thinking like a global health specialist. “It’s like a massive snowball that accumulates” between the fall and spring semester, says Lauren Westley, MPH ’15, who has a unique view of this process, which she experienced as an MPH student, a teaching assistant, and now as director of education in the School’s Office of Educational Initiatives, where she focuses on the Core. Ben Steiger, who is now working at the School doing research into wildfires and health, offers his own analogy: “All at once, all the jigsaw pieces snapped together.”

Evolving to Meet the Moment

Soon after the Core was introduced in 2012, a survey revealed high levels of enthusiasm for the experience among both students and faculty; follow-up surveys have confirmed the initial findings. The excitement for the Core was also reflected in a surge in MPH applications, which are up 20 percent in the past nine years. The 2021–2022 class of public health students is the School’s largest yet. 

The public health education community has been watching: In 2013, the School hosted a summit titled Innovations in Public Health Education. Deans from nearly every Association of Schools of Public Health member school gathered to learn about new developments in education, starting with the Columbia Mailman School Core. In 2016, the Council on Education for Public Health began requiring all schools of public health to offer an interdisciplinary core curriculum modeled on the Columbia Mailman School Core. Employers, too, have come to expect the kind of rigorous training the Core provides, as well as the opportunities for students to pursue specialized knowledge reflected in the certificates. Today, more than 95 percent of graduates secure public health employment by the end of the calendar year following graduation—a testament to employer interest in the School’s graduates. 

The School continually makes tweaks to the Core and lays the groundwork for new directions. Since 2017, students in ISP learning groups have tried their hands at opinion writing by drafting op-eds on a topic of their choosing. The best examples sometimes reach the national stage, such as a piece by Rachel Alter, MPH ’18, on her experience engaging with the anti-vaccine community, a version of which was published by The Guardian.

In the spring of 2020, the Office of Education was moving toward an online MPH that incorporated asynchronous learning—a “flipped classroom” model where students watch prerecorded lectures on their own time to make more time for classroom exercises and discussion. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic sped the School’s move to online teaching, and now the School is rolling out an online accelerated MPH program, which, like the existing Master of Health Administration and Master of Science curricula, will incorporate key features of the Core. Columbia Mailman School has also been aligning its educational offerings with its commitment to being a fully anti-racist institution. A curriculum-mapping project is reviewing every syllabus to diversify the expert voices students encounter. Already, it has significantly expanded the number of Core discussions that cover the health implications of racism and ways of addressing disparities.

As a next order of business, Fried and the School’s new vice dean of education, Michael A. Joseph, PhD, MPH, envision a suite of public health learning opportunities, including those that target mid-career or senior professionals looking to update their skills or switch careers and retirees who want to invest in expanding their minds. “From establishing new pipeline programs that attract Black, Latinx, and first-generation college students to ensuring the public health workforce stays current through lifelong learning initiatives, the ubiquitous nature of public health provides us with ample opportunities to deliver public health education to a diverse audience,” says Joseph. 

With an eye to the future, the School is also teaching public health to younger audiences through five-year BA-MPH programs in partnership with Columbia College, Barnard College, Vassar College, and other institutions. Says Joseph, “One of the reasons I took the job as vice dean of education was that I was drawn to the School’s passionate commitment to delivering an innovative public health education that will not only prepare students to tackle the pressing public health issues of today, but also those of tomorrow and decades to come. Our visionary Core Curriculum prepares our students with the ‘practice-ready’ skills and competencies they need to play active roles in improving the health of our communities.”

Tim Paul is an editor in the Columbia Mailman School Office of Communications. Jon Marcus compiled additional reporting for this story.