April 7, 2016

Gita Krishnaswamy, MEd, MPH, will teach the new Examining the Root Causes of Health Equity course at the 2016 Summer Institute. She talks about how the course is structured and why she’s excited to teach it.

NWCPHP faculty member Gita Krishnaswamy, MEd, MPH, has a passion for teaching and learning. This is evidenced by her many edifying endeavors, including assisting with NWCPHP training activities, teaching in the University of Washington’s Community-Oriented Public Health Practice (COPHP) Master of Public Health (MPH) program, and developing training for K-12 teachers at the Washington Alliance for Better Schools. She also studies the violin. In this interview, Gita shares about her passion for education and the new course she developed for the 2016 Summer Institute called Examining the Root Causes of Health Equity.

This course is structured around a case study. How would you explain case-based or problem-based learning to a newcomer? Why do you think they are effective learning formats?

Case-based learning falls under the umbrella of constructivist pedagogy, along with other valuable teaching approaches. They all have the same intention: putting students in the driver’s seat, so to speak, to explore meaningful, real world problems that connect to their background and interests. When cases are explored systematically and with a structured group process, students are invested in working through a problem as opposed to passively receiving facts and information. This gives students the opportunity to apply and practice new skills or refine existing skills and also lets students get immediate feedback on the areas where they need to strengthen their knowledge or skill base. Having used case-based teaching as both a student and teacher for two decades now, I can’t imagine teaching another way!

Why are you excited to teach this course?

I enjoy teaching students of all ages and in diverse contexts, particularly in learner-centered environments that use case studies or similar methods to engage students in applied problem solving. I enjoy coaching adult learners to deepen their critical thinking skills and facilitating opportunities for people to really sharpen their communication skills around social determinants of health. I currently teach a population health course for MPH students, and using problem-based learning and case-based learning means that I always end up learning new things from my students as well. I am excited to have this kind of discourse and exchange of ideas with a diverse group of public health professionals.

This course encourages participants to challenge commonly held health beliefs. What parts of this are most challenging for people? How do you address this struggle in class?

I would say three things are most challenging: 1) learning how to quickly find and assess reliable or reputable data; 2) struggling to reconcile a respect for personal agency and choice in the context of the social determinants of health—this can be really disillusioning for some; and 3) identifying concrete ways that a public health practitioner, who may often be constrained by funding obligations or scope of work, can participate in systemic change that really improves the upstream factors that influence the public’s health.

What led you to the field of public health and public health education? What informed your specific interests?

I was fortunate to attend a STEM-focused high school (Illinois Math and Science Academy) where I took advanced life science electives like General Microbiology and Pathogenic Microbiology with terrific instructors. One of those courses had a short epidemiology unit, and I became really interested in infectious disease epidemiology at the time. My educational path ultimately took some different twists and turns, and I ended up teaching high school life science for several years before pursuing my MPH.

In the courses I designed and taught, I found myself bringing a population-based context to the content I taught and developed units that asked students to think about scientific research in a social context and the social determinants of health (before I knew that’s what they were called). At some point, I realized I needed to go back to school to study public health. When I found the Community-Oriented Public Health Practice program, I knew it was the right fit for me, with its social justice focus and use of a problem-based learning pedagogy.

In addition to teaching, what other projects or topics are you working on? How do you bring those experiences or materials into your course?

At the UW, my primary focus is teaching. Apart from this, I am the Associate Director of Instructional Leadership for the Washington Alliance for Better Schools, a nonprofit collective of 11 public school districts in King and Snohomish Counties. I lead professional development for K-12 teachers who want to implement problem-based learning in their courses. We connect teachers with a variety of industry partners through field placements and help them develop problem-based units that are designed to engage students with diverse backgrounds and interests.

These broader connections within the educational and business communities inform the work I do in public health education, as I’m able to connect students with these partners or offer additional (and sometimes more pragmatic) perspectives on an issue. I’ve also taken on a good deal of the program evaluation work and I teach a quantitative methods course. These things, in combination, help me ask questions about what data we need to understand whether or not population health approaches are effective, and the challenges in operationalizing and analyzing those data.

Public health is challenging work. How do you stay motivated? What do you draw on for inspiration?

I feel fortunate to have a number of experienced mentors in public health who have persisted in their work through incredible challenges. Their experiences and ultimate successes remind me to persevere even when I am feeling discouraged by resistance or unanticipated challenges. I also draw a lot of inspiration from teaching graduate students, and teaching in general, because it’s a consistent reminder that there are people with the commitment, energy, and dispositions to improve our health systems and the public’s health.

Tell us a little bit about your life outside of work.

I have been a violinist with the Cascade Symphony Orchestra for the past four years. I believe it’s the oldest community orchestra in the area, and we play six concerts each season. I take private lessons as well, so this is my biggest commitment outside of my “day jobs.”