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MU Public Health Students Partner with Engineers to Take on Sanitation, Water Issues in Central America

Program teaches cultural competency, critical thinking to participants

November 7th, 2011

Story Contact: MU News Bureau, 573-882-6211,

COLUMBIA, Mo. –The abilities to adapt to quickly changing situations and to treat patients from diverse backgrounds with respect and understanding are necessary skills for future doctors, nurses and public health professionals. Now, students in the University of Missouri’s Master of Public Health Program (MPH) are going abroad to study public health issues outside of the U.S. and provide beneficial research for citizens in underprivileged areas.

Lynelle Phillips, field placement coordinator in the MPH Program, says increasing cultural competency is one of the main goals of the study abroad program. She says cultural competency, along with critical thinking and the ability to quickly adapt, are difficult skills to teach in the classroom.

“As public health professionals, we serve increasingly diverse communities,” Phillips said. “Anything we can do to promote cultural competency in our students will make them more sensitive to working with people from various backgrounds.”

MU MPH students partnered with Missouri University of Science and Technology’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders, a group that works to improve the quality of life in developing communities through sustainable engineering projects, as they built infrastructure to bring clean water to villages in Central America. In addition to spending several weeks or an entire summer abroad, several MPH students presented research at the Missouri Public Health Association’s Annual Conference in September. MU’s public health students won first, second and third place in the student poster competition.

Some examples of the students’ research:

  • Pictures that Speak: The Story of Health in Rural Honduras—Abigail Rolbiecki and Lara Hilliard used Photovoice, a research method during which photos taken by the residents are analyzed to gain understanding of specific issues. Rolbiecki and Hilliard found that access to clean water is a priority health issue in rural Honduras and that community members need guidance to improve water sanitation. The students created a video to showcase their research and generate funding interest for future student research.
  • Picturing a Healthy Community—Erik DeLaney and Andrea Winberg brought their Photovoice project to Guatemala. They gave residents digital cameras and conducted focus groups to gain a better understanding of the health needs in the area, create a stronger sense of community for tackling these health issues, and identify future projects for Engineers Without Borders.
  • A Survey of Water Provision, Waterborne Illness and Sanitation in the Town of Santiago, Honduras—Andrew Craver and Maya Tarter conducted a comprehensive survey of water use, sanitation and water-related illness. Craver and Tarter hope the survey will answer basic questions about health problems and water needs in the area and prompt engineers to address those needs and teach community members how to maintain the clean water system.

Phillips says students who travel abroad to study and serve disadvantaged populations return to the U.S. with an entirely new view of the world.

“It is fun for the faculty members to take students to new places and teach them in different settings,” Phillips said. “When we are abroad, the students are very engaged and fascinated in what they are learning. They get a great cultural experience and learn the complexities of improving peoples’ lives.”

Most students plan to return to the countries where they worked, or they hope to pass their research projects on to future MPH students.