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Mini Med School Draws the Curious

  • Shelley Schlender

Free classes won't make you a doctor, but will make you more knowledgeable

Becoming a doctor takes many years of training and tens of thousands of dollars in tuition. But anyone can get a taste of medical training, from real medical school professors, in just two months, for free, at a mini medical school in Denver.

Although medical students usually fill the lecture hall at the University of Colorado Medical Center, tonight it is ordinary people - of all ages, from all walks of life - who take their seats for an eight-week course called Mini Med School.

“Mini Medical School is the opportunity for faculty to come together with the community and talk about our body, answer their questions,” says Robin Michaels, one of seven medical professors who volunteer to teach the weekly, one-hour lessons.

And while no one in the mini med audience will earn a medical diploma, Michaels says they will learn plenty. “We do not dumb down the talks that we give to the community. Because the difference between your medical students and the people out in public really has most to do with their education, not their intellect.”

Diverse student group

Those eager to exercise their intellect include Barbara Stoner, who lives near the medical campus and has been curious about the course since it was first offered in 1989. “I wanted to take the mini med school 22 years ago, but the class was full.”

This year, Stoner signed up early and finally got in.

High school student Kelcie Proctor wants to become a doctor to honor her brother, who died of cancer. She heard about mini med from a teacher. “His friend works here as a professor, and he brought me the packet about this med school, and then I signed up.”

A middle school science teacher has his own reason for attending. “I’m fairly sure this mini med school is going to help me be a better teacher.”

We can't all be medical students, but ordinary people can gain a deeper understanding of the human body at the University of Colorado's Mini Med School.

We can't all be medical students, but ordinary people can gain a deeper understanding of the human body at the University of Colorado's Mini Med School.

A few rows away sit a mother and her 10-year-old daughter. “Because we are home schoolers, we think this is gold and so that is why we are here. We are going to fulfill some of our science requirements for this year.”

In person and online

The 200-person lecture hall is nearly full by the time the mini med program director, John Cohen, strides to the podium. Hundreds of other mini med students around the state participate through a live video feed.

Cohen explains how these diverse and far-flung students can all interact during tonight’s lecture, which is on anatomy.

“Because the folks all around are watching on video, we will have medical students with portable microphones. If you have a question, just wave one of them down. And the people at all the other sites, email us your question.”

Then he introduces Robin Michaels, the professor who will teach tonight’s anatomy lesson.

She guides the audience through a tour of the human body. And since everyone knows how to eat, she focuses on the digestive tract. Using humor and a slide show, she starts her tour with saliva, the substance that makes a it possible to have a mouth-watering reaction.

Deeper understanding of human body

Michaels moves on to talk about the stomach, pancreas and small intestine. This is what she does at the real medical school except, instead of presenting a slideshow, she guides medical students as they dissect human cadavers donated to the medical school while the person was living.

There are no such powerful learning tools for the mini med school audience, but tonight’s lecture is still a realistic taste of what medical school might be like.

Afterwards, a 10-year old student says she’s eager to learn even more. “I just, like, you know, it’s your own body and you should know what’s going on inside.”

Michaels agrees that it’s important that each of us knows how our body works. “We all are confronted with disease. We all are confronted with death and dying. It’s how we approach that that our knowledge base is really important. Can we help educate the community is really what mini med is all about.”

Over the past two decades, more than 17,000 people have attended Mini Med School, making it the most popular course offered by the University of Colorado School of Medicine. It has inspired nearly 100 similar programs around the world, including in Canada, Germany and Ireland.

And there are plans now for a Mini Med II, an advanced program for mini med graduates which will launch in 2012.