Current complex health problems like climate anxiety, kidney disease prevention and management, addiction recovery and more are being addressed by fourth-year Health Sciences students through a unique new capstone course.

The School of Public Health Sciences (SPHS) has partnered with United College’s GreenHouse and the Centre for Career Development (CDD) to offer students an experiential learning opportunity in HLTH 480, a new required course launched for the first time this fall.

Diane Williams

“We put this course together because we felt like students needed a way to synthesize everything they’ve learned throughout their degree, and then to apply it in some way,” explains Dr. Diane Williams, HLTH 480 instructor and SPHS associate director, undergraduate studies. “A lot of our students are very social justice and advocacy-oriented, so the relationship with GreenHouse is a win-win.”

GreenHouse is a social impact incubator, making connections with organizations and community members who share a common goal: to create social or environmental change.

HLTH 480 students are tasked with an end-of-term cumulative project that addresses a challenge statement offered by one of the organizations affiliated with GreenHouse. This year, students are working with the City of Waterloo, the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Drug Treatment Court and Your Health Space initiatives, Bladder Cancer Canada, KidsAbility, NewGen Health, the Canadian Institute for Social Prescribing’s Student Collective and CanPKU and Allied Disorders.

The challenge statements prompt the students to answer a question that requires creative problem-solving and knowledge application. Next, they create presentations as a group and pitch their ideas both to the organization and to the rest of the class.

Jennifer Yessis.

“It pushes students a little bit outside of their comfort zone,” says Dr. Jennifer Yessis, HLTH 480 instructor and SPHS associate professor. “It’s an opportunity for students to work on real health challenges with external organizations and to realize that they can actually make an important difference.”

As an example of a challenge statement, NewGen Health — a social venture established through GreenHouse by Waterloo alumni — asks students: “How might we identify and adopt best practices in kidney disease prevention and management?”

According to NewGen, 90 per cent of individuals with kidney disease are unaware that they have it because the kidney does not produce pain to alert the individual of damage. The group of HLTH 480 students assigned to this challenge statement presented ideas to address this knowledge gap, such as offering take-home testing kits, hosting virtual information sessions, partnering with Kidney Health Awareness Club at Waterloo and other creative solutions.

“The students have offered a different view on our problems, and their perspectives have been very helpful,” said Mazhar Shahen, NewGen Health CEO and Kinesiology alum (BSc, ‘22). “My goal in this partnership was to encourage their entrepreneurial skills, and to let them know there are no limits; whatever they come up with could be applicable.”

The organizations may or may not decide to take the students’ ideas further. Some students will stay connected with their organization and continue to work on their challenge.

The course also prepares students for the real world through career portfolio creation, in partnership with CCD, to highlight what they have achieved.

“They learn to creatively display their skills, reflect on what they’ve learned and how they’ve applied it and pitch themselves orally and visually,” says Yessis. “The benefit of this course is that everyone is taking it, so everyone gets to benefit from learning a bit about social entrepreneurship.”