Program creates paths to new futures

Alan Jackson
University of North Texas kinesiologist Allen Jackson is the principal investigator for the Participation and Training in Health Science, or PATHS, project. He sees the program as a step toward breaking the cycle of underrepresentation in health science professions among Hispanics.
Wednesday, January 10, 2007

For students now in high school, making higher education and career choices can depend heavily on exposure to the possibilities. Ethnic minorities underrepresented in specific professions face a daunting challenge because often that exposure simply does not happen.

After all, it's unlikely a student will choose a path toward a specific career if he or she knows no one in the field and knows little about it, including how to work toward such a career.

That is often the case in Texas' growing Hispanic population when it comes to health science careers. And Texas situation reflects the trend nationwide. National statistics show that the Hispanic population is significantly underrepresented in most health science fields. In a 2004 survey, for example, Hispanics represented only 1.8 percent of registered nurses nationwide.

The University of North Texas has taken up the challenge to encourage more Hispanic students to seek health science careers through a program at a predominantly Hispanic Dallas high school that has been targeted for intervention and study. The effort is funded by a three-year science education grant from the National Center for Research Resources of the National Institutes of Health under the Science Education Partnership Award Program.

The UNT project, Participation and Training in Health Science (PATHS), is a partnership of UNT, the UNT Health Science Center at Fort Worth, North Dallas High School and Molina High School in Dallas. The project's principal investigator, UNTs Allen Jackson, sees PATHS as a step toward breaking the cycle of underrepresentation in health science professions among Hispanics. The program, which is underway in grades 9-12 at North Dallas High School through this year, could eventually serve as a model for intervention in other Dallas public high schools. While it is targeted toward Hispanic students, any student may participate.

"We've set up a program in the school that has three main features," explains Jackson, a Regents Professor of kinesiology, health promotion and recreation at UNT.

PATHS supports a health science club that introduces students to professionals in health care. It organizes and sponsors field trips that bring students into educational settings in various health-care fields. It also runs a program of healthy lifestyle classes, specifically designed to be culturally appropriate, which fits into the health curriculum of the school.

The basic concept behind the program is not only to provide information, but also to offer firsthand experience that can encourage students to consider health and science professions, Jackson says.

"We're talking about the students' feelings and expectations," he explains. "The idea of being a biologist or nurse isn't on the radar screen to many of them."

He describes PATHS as a role-modeling and mentoring program.

"We involve people from the same culture and say, 'Hey, you can do what I have done,'" he says. "Students have simply got to believe 'I can be successful at that.' And it takes exposure to do that."

Direct exposure through guest speakers and field trips is available to students who join North Dallas High School's Health Science Club, an organization begun as part of the PATHS program. Field trips have taken students to places such as the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, the UNT biological sciences and chemistry departments, the nursing and physical therapy schools at Texas Woman's University, the UNT Health Science Center's anatomy laboratory, and Dallas Cooper Institute and Fitness Center.

"Students enjoy the field trips," says Eva Peña, the on-site PATHS coordinator at North Dallas High School. "Not everyone has the opportunity to experience university life, so this is a real privilege for them. The students are very attentive and ask a lot of questions."

She adds that students come away from field trips and club presentations with broadened perspectives about what they might do in the future, as reflected in their written comments.

"Since I was young I always wanted to do something in the medical field, but I wasn't sure what I wanted to do," writes one 10th-grader."Project PATHS gives me a view of each field, and this really helps me choose what I want to be."

A role model for the students herself, Peña, who is Hispanic and bilingual, was chosen to coordinate the program in part because of her own success in achieving a career in public health. She relates to the students through her own experience. After earning a bachelor's degree in biology from UNT, she was uncertain about what to do next.

"I was very introverted," she remembers. "It was like the microscope was my best friend."

Through the encouragement of her professors, she went on to earn a master of public health degree at the UNT Health Science Center. That experience gave her increased confidence and a clearer vision of her own career path, but she says she could have used the encouragement earlier.

"It would have been great if there had been a program like this when I was in high school," she says.

As part of their work at North Dallas High, Peña and two part-time graduate assistants present a healthy lifestyles curriculum based on a program called Salud para su Corazón (Health for Your Heart).

This program was developed by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and adapted by UNT for use in the high school's health and life skills classes.

"We added Salud para su Corazón to PATHS because it was a natural," Jackson says.

By contributing to students' knowledge about healthier lifestyles, the lessons help bring health issues to the forefront for students, which is important because studies show Hispanics to have higher health risks - for such conditions as obesity and heart disease - than the general population.

Jackson and the PATHS team of co-investigators use student surveys to measure the impact of the overall program. Molina High School in Dallas, which has a population similar to that of North Dallas High School, serves as the study's control group.

The PATHS program aims to increase by 10 percent the number of Hispanics at the target school who enter educational programs leading to health and science careers. A pilot survey of Hispanic students at North Dallas High, conducted before the program began, showed that only 13 percent expressed interest in such careers.

School officials believe the program is well on its way to success. The Health Science Club is the largest extracurricular activity at North Dallas High, Jackson notes, and PATHS recently received a certificate of appreciation from the school for dedication and outstanding service to its staff and students.

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108