At this year’s Texas Public Health Association (TPHA) annual conference, co-hosted by the UNTHSC School of Public Health, hundreds of students, researchers and public health professionals from around the state gathered in Fort Worth for a chance to share ideas, network and gain new perspectives in the field.
A highlight of the week, and a new event for 2017, was the “TPHA Hack-A-Thon,” modeled after an idea from computer software experts, where the goal is to explore new solutions to a problem during a concentrated, “marathon” time period.
For the TPHA exercise, roundtable teams of students – paired with organization members and community leaders – were tasked with creating an intervention or program to address adolescent suicide, a serious public health concern in Texas.
UNTHSC School of Public Health student Shanalyn Gosh, who is pursuing her MPH in Maternal and Child Health, attended the event as the school’s reporter. Here she shares her notes:
What is a hack-a-thon?
“So … what exactly is a hack-a-thon?” one of my classmates whispers, as I walk into the Hilton Hotel and push past a crowd to get to the registration desk.
“No idea,” I say, wondering that same question myself.
A volunteer hands me my packet and I make my way to the designated room, running into other classmates along the way.
We finally reach the room and we see many of the community partners are already there, munching on breakfast and mingling. I take a seat at my assigned table and smile tentatively at the community members already seated, feeling a little out of place.
I quickly realize that this is unfounded. Talking to the community members is much easier than I had anticipated.
It’s often very easy to be intimidated by those who are well regarded and experienced. But I find that the community leaders are eager to share advice and experiences just as much as we are eager to listen.
As the talking dies down, Dr. Melissa Oden (UNTHSC faculty member and 2016-17 TPHA President) gives us a quick run-down of the rules.
She gives us a sheet of paper with a problem and the demographics of a population that needs help. We are given an hour or so to come up with an intervention or program that addresses teen suicide, and then we’ll present our results to a panel of judges.
When Dr. Oden finishes, everyone sets to work.
As I walk around observing the different groups, I’m surprised by how quickly the students have risen to the occasion of getting their ideas out without hesitancy, and how the community partners listen with a certain attention that I think is often rare between students and mentors. The mutual respect is obvious.
The hour passes and it’s time to present.
Offering solutions … lessons learned
There are seven groups, and I’m a struck by the innovation in their ideas, the creativity even in the names of these theoretical programs that they are proposing.
There is a group called “Suicide Squad” that wants to create teen suicide awareness by involving the whole community in a pep rally; they want to name it “Life Rally.”
Another team, “Affluenza Texas,” wants to address what they see as a communications gap around mental health issues. Among other ideas, they recommend creating a phone app called “What’s Up With You,” where users could Skype, FaceTime or text to reach out to others when they need to talk.
Soon it’s time for the judges’ deliberation, and Dr. Oden leads a quick discussion about what each of the community partners does for a living and their thoughts on public health.
As they go around the room, I am surprised at how many professions are influenced by public health, such as police work, insurance, lobbying, teaching and many others.
I think about how diverse my cohort class is, and I am glad that we are reflected in the community in that way.
As we continue talking about issues in the youth population, Dr. Oden says something that strikes a cord in me. She says, “What happens to you and when is incredibly important.”
It makes me think of what we learn in class and why all of us are here in public health. And why it matters why that we’re here.
The group that ends up winning is “Little Phoenix.”
Their case study involves a community with higher suicide rates than most, combined with lower than average household incomes. They deem it a “community in decline” that has “lost its identity.”
They believe that an infusion of new jobs and programs to cultivate technical skills could be a turning point for residents. They recommend starting with high-level community leader involvement to implement immediate short-term goals and then follow up with longer-term, sustainable programs.
The team is awarded coffee mugs for their winning solution, and we have all learned a lot from the experience.
What’s most interesting at the end is to find out that our case studies are based on real communities and real problems, which I think is truly the best learning experience for students who aren’t yet actively out in the field. It also gives community leaders insight into how students would approach their work outside the classroom.
Dr. Oden gives a quick thank you to the community partners and students.
As we’re leaving, she says almost as an afterthought, “It’s called a hack-a-thon because you all hack at a problem within a short time period. The idea of the hack-a-thon is originally for computer programmers.”
It seems a little silly, but it works.