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When UNC first-year medical students shifted their studies to remote learning in March, they were eager not only to continue their typical curriculum but also to learn about COVID-19.

When UNC first-year medical students shifted their studies to remote learning in March, they were eager not only to continue their typical curriculum but also to learn about COVID-19. Thomas Egan, Professor Surgery, therefore initiated a pilot discussion with the 7 students in his Patient Centered Care (PCC) Course group. Meanwhile, 17 second-year, third-year, and fourth-years students from the “Medical Education Scholarly Concentration Program” were eager to develop their teaching skills. With an entrepreneurial spirit, these senior students took Dr. Egan’s lead with an intent to scale up the discussion and set out to develop, deliver, and evaluate an informal remote COVID-19 curriculum for first-year students in partnership with Kurt Gilliland, Associate Dean of Curriculum, Gary Beck Dallaghan, Director of Educational Scholarship, and Dr. Egan.

When the notion of optional weekly online COVID-19 discussions was suggested to the first-year class, 144 of them immediately committed to the opportunity. Quickly the 17 senior students of the Medical Education Scholarly Concentration Program cobbled together a 10-week series of Zoom-based seminars called “COVID: COmbatting Virulent Infectious Diseases.” The goals of the series were to foster a sense of community; highlight connections among basic, clinical, and social sciences; promote individual preparedness for the future as student, resident, clinician, and community educator; facilitate conversation of health care systems and their improvement; and promote lifelong learning skills as students process new information in real time.

Liz Neylan, class of 2022, who helped facilitate the discussions, said, “What I appreciated most about this teaching experience is that it created an opportunity for MS1s in the class of 2023 to foster a sense of community among members of not only their own class but also the MS2 and MS3 classes during what would have otherwise been a potentially isolating period in medical education.” Seth Alexander, class of 2022, agreed and added, “Efforts like this promote leadership among senior medical students while creating a valuable academic experience for more junior ones.”

Kelly Carey-Ewend, class of 2023, a participant in the discussion sessions, explained what he valued. “The COVID elective was a really great improvised way to instruct a lot of medical students about various facets and aspects of the pandemic while also keeping us in the MS1 class regularly informed on the situation as it evolves. It was also a nice way to foster some student interaction, an element of medical school that has been understandably scaled back since the implementation of social distancing restrictions.”

The “course” started in early April with a discussion of history and epidemiology of pandemics. Then the weekly COVID-19 sessions were designed to have a bench-to-bedside-to-community flow — basic science and disease ecology; clinical presentation and treatment; ethics; policy and supply chain; science communication; and practical application and impact on the economy. The sessions, which occurred in Zoom, had short videos and readings as preparation and then, after a large-group introduction, utilized the breakout-group function to develop small groups and proceed with interactive discussion, debate, presentations by participants, and even role playing exercises.

Steve Mow, class of 2022, described the instructional experience as being “like a clinical rotation for the principles of teaching we learned through the past medical education elective courses we had taken. It was a welcome surprise to feel somewhat prepared to host a course for the MS1 class. We all also learned a lot along the way.” Yasemin Cole expanded, “The COVID seminar created a unique outlet for medical students to engage in peer education, an integral component of lifelong learning and professionalism.”

COVID: COmbatting Virulent Infectious Diseases” culminates this week with group project presentations by the 144 MS1 students. Some student groups are even planning to submit their projects for publication in the AAMC’s iCollaborative, which collects resources related to educational innovations, policies, and best practices within the health professions that support teaching and learning.

Emily Hollis, class of 2023 reflected, “As a clinical phase student pulled out of rotations, I had more time than my peer pre-clinical phase students to help form educational materials to keep all students up to date and informed on the pandemic. Working together with my student colleagues created a sense of unity while also allowing us to learn from each other and then share our new knowledge with our own unique community circles outside of medical school. This quickly became one of my favorite medical school projects thus far.”

The 17 senior students not only developed and delivered their curriculum but also evaluated it. Collectively they are planning to disseminate their efforts in the medical education literature with shared authorship. Their collaboration both as a teaching team and as a publishing team epitomizes the UNC spirit.

Alison Hollis, class of 2022, summed up the experience: “Teaching this class fostered a community of collaboration among peers in a unique way. It was great to learn while teaching and to connect with classmates during a period in which virtual teaching is crucial. Having a project with this many group leaders provided many different perspectives, teaching styles, and great ideas in general. This was an excellent experience.”

Dr. Quentin Reynolds, a recent graduate of the class of 2020, even continued teaching after he graduated a few weeks ago — a true testament to UNC School of Medicine, its students, and its culture. Meanwhile, the student teachers in the Medical Education Scholarly Concentration Program will continue to evaluate their efforts as part of their longitudinal educational research projects.