‘This plane is flying’— new curriculum achieves milestone

News Archive

‘This plane is flying’— new curriculum achieves milestone

Faculty from across five-state region debrief on launch of new approaches to medical student education

The development of a brand new curriculum is challenging and among those involved in curriculum development and first implementation, there is always the worry:  Will it work? When the curriculum in question is for medical students at sites across a five-state region, anxiety runs high. 


Gross Anatomy
Clare McLean
In an anatomy lab, medical students learn about human form and function with Andrew Farr, professor of biological structure.
Gross anatomy lab

Recently, about 90 faculty members who help develop and teach the new UW School of Medicine curriculum from across Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho — the WWAMI region —  gathered on the University of Washington campus in Seattle  They met to debrief and discuss the curriculum’s start and plans for the future.  The mood in the room was upbeat.  One faculty member smiled and declared, “This plane is flying!”  

The curriculum reached a major milestone in December with the completion of Term 1.   Over three months, a total of 246 UW first-year medical students at regional sites in Seattle, Spokane, Laramie Wyo., Anchorage Alaska, Bozeman Mont., and Pullman, Idaho, completed an intensive multi-week clinical immersion and orientation followed by two blocked courses and a longitudinal course:  Molecular and Cellular Basis of Disease, Invaders and Defenders and Foundations of Clinical Medicine.  Integrated into the blocks were “threads” like pathology and histology, pharmacology, and human form and function (anatomy, ultrasound and related areas) as well as “themes” like ethics, professionalism, health equity, population health and other key areas.

The courses demonstrate substantially more active learning than in the past, whether through small-group breakouts or more interactive large-group lectures and Q & A.   Students had a break from the classroom midweek with Foundations of Clinical Medicine. This is offered on Wednesdays with alternating clinical skills workshops and primary-care preceptorships spent with clinicians in their offices.   In addition, all students participated in college mornings on Monday or Friday.These are times set aside for students to work with their faculty mentor and small group of peers in an inpatient setting. There they learn basic clinical skills and practice oral case presentations and write-ups. 

After completing the first two blocks and exams, the students had a one-week intersession prior to their winter vacation.  Intersessions, located between curriculum terms, are for “rest, remediation and enrichment.”  The periods have been left intentionally flexible during the first year to accommodate any unexpected curricular needs.  But students still had several options for enrichment, including short offerings. These included Medical Students as Advocates: Practical Skills for Effective Advocacy; Foundations of Scholarship: Engagement, Skills and Strategies for Personal and Professional Development; Adolescent Health in Low-Resource Settings and others.

First-year students returned to their respective campuses after break to begin the Circulatory Systems course that covers the heart, lungs and kidneys.  Following this, they will take on Blood and Cancer and Energetics and Homeostasis before summer break.


Medical students in gross anatomy
Clare McLean
Medical students gather in groups in an anatomy teaching lab at the University of Washington
gross anatomy lab

Their clinical experiences in Foundations of Clinical Medicine will continue throughout the year.

Michael Ryan, associate dean for curriculum and leader of the massive effort, commented on the start of the curriculum, “It’s been incredibly gratifying to see how well it’s going.  While there are ‘bumps in the road’ expected of a new curriculum, we are also hearing from students and faculty that it’s working well.” 

Ryan noted that students are vitally important in ensuring the curriculum’s success. They’re asked to give weekly feedback about how the week went. This information is used to evaluate the curriculum and make adjustments.  Students also volunteer as advisors to faculty leaders in each block to provide ongoing feedback from classroom peers.

Ryan said, “Two things have been key to the new curriculum’s success so far: exceptionally collaborative and talented faculty and staff working together across five states to build the new curriculum and our great students across all five states who are engaged and helping us make improvements.  It’s a wonderful recipe for success!”