Consuming multiple scholarly articles about depression in college-age students, Hunter Reed saw a problem.
“Multiple studies show instances where a student will be extremely smart and talented, but the overload of stress and work causes them to fail or drop out despite their potential,” he said of his findings.
So he and his lab partner at Our Lady of Lourdes Regional School in Coal Township decided to offer a solution.
Through their senior-year capstone project in the school’s Biomed program, they developed an innovation for on-campus buildings specifically dedicated to students’ mental health.
“We envisioned and engineered a solution of buildings at colleges and universities where therapists would be available at various times throughout the day to meet with students and ultimately help them fulfill their complete potential,” said Hunter.
“In our society and our culture today, there is a big emphasis on mental health and how it is impacting people. That attention and emphasis has developed over time for the better, and I feel like colleges and universities should adapt and change as our culture and society changes on that emphasis,” he said.
Hunter was one of 14 Lourdes seniors to graduate from the school’s Biomed program this spring. The innovative and hands-on curriculum leads students through a four-year course that provides in-depth studies and components on chronic disease, nutrition, DNA analysis, metabolic testing, medical interventions, and dissections of joints and the heart.
It also introduces students to a myriad of health care careers, including oncology, endocrinology, occupational and speech therapy, pharmacology, dentistry, nursing and genetics.
The Biomed program was introduced four years ago at Lourdes through Project Lead the Way, a non-profit organization that empowers students to develop and apply in-demand skills for real-world challenges, and through program director and instructor Amy Polites Feese.
The program was introduced in response to the school’s findings that more than 50 percent of its students opt to pursue medical-related education and careers after graduation.
When it began in the fall of 2017, the program was limited to 24 students. This year, 42 were enrolled, as Lourdes opted to extended it to all students who are interested in committing to the challenging coursework.
“Initially, the program was designed to be a selective enrollment for certain students, but we quickly realized the modalities used in learning offered kids an opportunity in the classroom they hadn’t had before,” said Polites Feese. “We see kids succeed in these classes because they’re more hands-on, and the engagement is greater.”
The program presents a faith-based approach to health care, sciences and medicine, with strong themes on bioethics and discussion of the complementarity of faith and science.
“The program lets students see the miracle of science, and how our Creator was able to formulate such complexities that are still revealing themselves to us,” Polites Feese said.
The goal is to provide an activity-based and problem-solving curriculum that leads students to exploration of biomedical careers. But along the way, they develop skills critical to any career: time-management, communication, collaboration and critical thinking.
Lourdes’ Biomed program goes far beyond the classroom, and its students are already making a positive impact in the community.
Student lab assistants are an additional component to the program’s core courses, and their further efforts facilitate peer-to-peer learning, good practice and study skills.
The lab assistants also perform community outreach. This year, they conducted several blood drives and an allergy-awareness campaign that included the distribution of allergy-free candy at Halloween. In response to the pandemic, the lab assistants offered mental health awareness, and information on proper sanitation and the use of personal protective equipment.
The Biomed program’s community impact expands into the health care workplace, too. A requirement of the program is that students shadow a professional for 80 hours during the summer prior to their senior year – an obligation removed this academic year due to the pandemic.
Instead, students took on the remarkable effort of facilitating a career symposium. Each student selected a professional in the biomedical field, collected questions from their peers and moderated an hour-long meeting for discussion.
The Biomed program also affords students the opportunity to participate in co-ops with community organizations. Recent graduate Katelyn Deitz participated in a co-op experience with Geisinger Shamokin Area Community Hospital this year, where she assisted in the pharmacy. As part of her responsibilities, Katelyn reported to the hospital from 7:00-9:45 a.m. on school days to count pills, refill syringes and restock the automated vending machines that nurses utilize to distribute medication.
“I do the same things as a pharmacy tech, except handle narcotics,” Katelyn said. “I feel like this experience has helped me get accepted to colleges because I’ve been in a hospital setting. I’ve been offered by the hospital to come back and work the next four years there as a pharmacy technician, which will help me as I major in nursing.”
Katelyn’s capstone project, completed with her lab partner, focused on neuroscience. Their research project on brain dysfunction by location illustrated how injuries to various parts of the brain impact the human body.
The senior year capstone course zeroes-in on professional possibilities and gears students for engineering design principles and innovations within health care and medicine.
In this vein, senior lab partners Meryl Czeponis and Caroline Feese opted to create an app to assist people struggling with depression and anxiety.
“Throughout high school, we’ve become more aware of the stigma of mental health, so Caroline and I decided to work on an app that would be an accessible resource for people who might not feel comfortable talking about their mental health because of the stigma associated with it,” Meryl explained.
With features to track medication time and appointments, and prompts for self-care practices like journaling, reflecting and exercising, the app is called “Begin Anywhere.” Meryl and Caroline are working with students connections at Bloomsburg University to create a beta version of the app for further development.
“Depression and anxiety are such common things that many teenagers our age face, so we wanted to create something everyone could use and be inclusive to people of all ages and genders,” Caroline said.
“The goal of the app is to make the hardest parts of the day a little bit easier, especially with the planner and things to help you get through your day,” said Meryl.
In celebration of the completion of the rigorous program and innovative capstone projects, senior members of the Biomed program were honored during a “White Coat” ceremony at the school. The annual ceremony for program graduates bestows students with white lab coats as a symbol of their commitment and success.
This year’s ceremony was on April 22, and honored last year’s graduates (due to the pandemic) and this year’s seniors – the first class to participate in the full, four-year curriculum.
Polites Feese said the Biomed program is a service to students and to the community, which will receive graduates well-prepared for biomedical and health care careers.
“This program is a big opportunity for students and for the school as a whole,” said Meryl. “A big thing we learn at Lourdes is using our gifts to help others. Medicine, research and science are passions of mine, and through this program I’ve been able to see how I can help others through those passions…. It’s really just using what we’ve learned to help others – that’s been the biggest gift of the program for me.”
Learn more about Our Lady of Lourdes Regional School at www.lourdes.k12.pa.us.
(Classroom photos by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness. Student group photo courtesy Lourdes.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness