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Ladder program opens up health science fields

November 27, 2018
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Eighth-grader Natalie Scheer navigates an obstacle course wearing goggles to simulate the effects of a brain injury during the Ladder program at UW Health to boost career awareness in science, technology, engineering and math. The program is a national community-based mentorship and health education pathway program.

The UW School of Medicine and Public Health and the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County have launched a program aimed at increasing the number of students from underrepresented backgrounds choosing to enter the health care and health science research fields.

The Ladder program, which will be held monthly during the school year at the Health Sciences Learning Center, exposes 15 students as young as nine to opportunities in health and science careers, according to Beverly Hutcherson, the Ladder lead program designer. The first Saturday morning session was Nov. 17.

“Hopefully I will get a better understanding of what I could become in the medicine field and what I could study in high school and college,” said Natalie Scheer, an eighth-grader at Cherokee Middle School.

Natalie also said she enjoyed a part of the morning called “Real Talk” when the participants, who are called “scholars,” have a conversation with professionals. She said she likes hearing the other scholars’ points of view. She also said something one of the leaders said stuck with her: “A bad attitude is like a flat tire. You can’t go anywhere till you change it.”

Marion Moore, a sixth-grader at Toki Middle School, said the program is helping him slow down and think more.

“I’m going to get a better mind,” he said. “Usually I go too quick.”

The program is beginning as a two-year pilot with specific goals of shaping career aspirations, providing peer-to-peer mentoring, increasing student resiliency, building a community and boosting awareness of science, technology, engineering and math careers. To achieve these goals, the sessions will include exposure to careers and mentorship in part through hands-on science activities.

The first week focused on the brain. For one of the activities, the students wore goggles to simulate the effects of a brain injury. Alexis Liggins, an eighth-grader at Toki, found that eye-opening.

“I kept bumping into stuff,” she said.

The Ladder program at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health is adapted from a program created at the University of Minnesota but with more emphasis on the social aspect, according to Brian Gittens, associate dean of human resources, and diversity, equity and inclusion at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

“The Ladder is being adapted to meet the needs of Dane County students,” according to Beverly Hutcherson, the Ladder lead program designer. “The (program leaders) are all first-generation college graduates who have been successful in science, technology, engineering, math or health care.”

It serves as an intergenerational and mentorship support network for students and is another step toward addressing a critical shortage of diversity in the health care workforce, Gittens said.

“Regardless of what the kids decide to do, they are better for having these experiences,” he said.

Gittens is also a member of the Ladder leadership team at UW, along with co-directors Dr. Jasmine Zapata, assistant professor of pediatrics and population health sciences and Dr. Luther Gaston, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology, both at UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

Alex Gagnon, Boys & Girls Club of Dane County vice president of school-based education, said when students are surveyed at the Boys & Girls Club about interests, health sciences is generally at the top of the list.

The students in the program this year will mentor new students who are involved next year.

“Not only are we mentoring and growing this group of students but they will be leveraging their leadership skills,” Gagnon said.

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