Illustration of woman with a key standing in front of an open book with keyholes

Inventing the Future

It’s time to re-envision public health education.

By Ellen J. MacKenzie, PhD ’79, ScM ’75

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” —Alan Kay, technology visionary 

love this quote. It’s bold. It makes clear the power and responsibility we have for the future of public health. We’re not here to wait for the future, but to create it. All of us in public health are impatient to realize a healthier and more equitable future. We set ambitious goals to drive down disease and disability, ensure a longer and healthier life for all, champion the needs of the most vulnerable, and promote health equity. 

One of our greatest opportunities for shaping the future? Education. As a school, we take the long view and have seen time and again the multiplier effects of training generations of public health professionals and researchers who can have an impact at the local, regional, and global levels. 

Who, what, and how we teach today shapes tomorrow. 

Let’s begin with who we teach. To truly address our society’s underlying health inequities, we must train a diverse public health workforce that reflects the population we serve. This means we must broaden our recruitment efforts, emphasize a holistic review of applicants, and offer scholarships to those who cannot afford a graduate education. Also important: recruiting a diverse faculty and championing a more welcoming, inclusive environment where people of all backgrounds can contribute, succeed, and thrive. 

We also need to draw students from a range of professions. Educators, public safety professionals, housing officials, transportation experts, and others outside the traditional boundaries of public health will seed cross-sector collaborations and a “health in all policies” approach that will achieve meaningful improvements in health. 

What we teach is being re-envisioned as well. While many public health fundamentals have not changed in 100 years, the pandemic reminds us, yet again, that the population’s health is driven largely by social, cultural, economic, and environmental factors. Effective solutions must address these factors head-on. Most dramatic has been the reminder that racism continues to cause inequity. A major goal of the School’s Inclusion, Diversity, Anti-Racism, and Equity (IDARE) action plan is to ensure our curriculum illuminates racism as a driver of inequity so we can advance anti-racist policies and practices that combat structural racism and improve health. 

The pandemic has also taught us that while good science is critical, it isn’t enough. Public health professionals must rely on the cross-cutting skills of leadership, effective decision-making, negotiation, and change management.

The pandemic has also taught us that while good science is critical, it isn’t enough. Tomorrow’s public health leaders must perfect the cross-cutting skills of effective decision-making, negotiation, and change management. They must rely on systems thinking to identify sustainable public health solutions to complex health problems. And—critically—they will need to be effective communicators and advocates who can engage communities with diverse ideological and political points of view and build consensus across the divides that now characterize much of our world. Our graduates must leave the School with a toolbox of practical skills that will help them lead change in an increasingly complex and volatile environment. 

Finally, how we teach must adapt to the evolving needs of today’s learners. Above all, we are focusing on more active learning and practice experiences. We are designing flexible spaces that are more conducive to interactive and team-based approaches to teaching and learning. We are thinking strategically about the time students and faculty have together. Some material can be taught via recorded lectures. Then, live sessions (in-person or online) can be used to delve into knotty issues and grapple with complex data and ideas through team-based learning. This blended approach will likely become even more popular as we emerge from the remote environment of the pandemic. 

This past year has highlighted the value of flexibility as we rapidly shifted to all-virtual last fall and hybrid experiences this spring. Post-pandemic, some learners will want to come to campus full time and in person, while others will prefer part-time, online learning. With high-quality streaming technologies, we now have greater capability to bring our off-campus learners into classes currently designed for in-person experiences only. This will not only afford more options for online learners but bring learners together from all over the world to share experiences and support our goal of global-to-local learning. 

Also important for the future is greater access to affordable alternatives to nondegree programs that provide certificates or micro-credentials in targeted areas of study. A couple of examples: our Certificate in Data Science and Contact Tracing courses that have reached millions through Coursera. 

What will all of this look like? The Bloomberg American Health Initiative Fellows program provides an instructive example. Dedicated outreach efforts have successfully recruited a diverse group of more than 150 fellows from 41 states and territories. One-quarter are under-represented minority students, and 88 fellows come from nontraditional partners including police departments, housing agencies, libraries, and the business community. Importantly, each fellow works closely with a collaborating organization throughout their course of studies. Most study part-time, taking courses online and in a hybrid format. They dive deep into practice-based learning and will benefit from a network of learners and organizations long after graduation. 

This program, with its focus on diverse learners and practice-based teaching and learning, provides a vision of what public health education can be. This is how we create the future.