top of page
  • Writer's pictureetulbert

Is There a Doctor in the House? 5 Strategies for Engaging Medical Mentors in Schools and Classrooms

By Eve Tulbert and April Luehmann

6 minute read


Medical mentors are qualified experts who volunteer their time with public schools. Creating a medical mentorship program can be fun and straightforward. In this article, we share strategies for working with medical mentors, and helping youth dive into public health exploration. After connecting medical mentors with over 40 teachers and 1,000 students, our key strategies are:

5) Youth relationships are a key asset for public health impacts. Remember…we’re in it together! Read more...

It’s not easy to be a kid in the middle of a pandemic. Let’s face it--a lot of us would rather be watching movies in our pajamas instead of logging on to Zoom. At school, we wonder if a mask break might lead to contagion. But even in the middle of COVID-19, an unprecedented challenge for public education, we’re finding that science matters to our students more than ever. Why? Because we’re connecting classrooms with medical mentors, helping students to gain knowledge for disease prevention at home and school.

Dr. Neem shares vaccine information with families from Freedom School, October 2021

In Fall 2020, the Get Real! Science program at the University of Rochester started a network of five school districts, 25 doctors and researchers, 16 teachers, and over 500 students. Together, we learn how the COVID-19 impacts us here at home–and around the world. Now, this network is growing. With support from the National Science Foundation, we’re including 20 new teachers and over 1,000 students across New York and Connecticut.

Our students are engaged in video conversations with front-line medical workers. These mentors help students to design and carry out their own studies and intervention campaigns. Together, they engage in contact tracing, testing mask design, and analyzing data. Classrooms make visual models of disease transmission, participate in scientific debates and turn their learnings into video Public Service Announcements. With medical mentors--a direct line to expert knowledge--students find new ways to support the safety of their schools.

What we’re learning--and learning fast--is that kids, classrooms, and community health partners must come together to build new networks for scientific literacy and public health. When tricky questions come into the classroom, (“What kind of mask works best?” “Am I safe on an airplane or in a restaurant?”), it’s invaluable to know that there’s an expert on your side.

We found that medical mentors, when asked, jumped at the opportunity to speak with and support public school students. Why? The pandemic has tested their capacity to become teachers, too. “You’re not only taking care of your patients, but becoming an advocate and getting involved in the whole community,” says Dr. Terrace Thomas of the University of Rochester.

This article contains our playbook for building connections between medical mentors, kids and schools. We hope that you can use it to find engage medical mentors in your school programs.

1. Keep Your Asks Clear And Simple

Busy people need clear asks, clear tasks, and realistic goals. Be flexible with mentors. For example, if daytime hours are difficult, convene small groups of students in the evening. Student representatives can ask questions written by the whole classroom. Then, screen the video recording for multiple classrooms the next day.

Make sure that expectations and schedules are clear. Imagine you’ve scheduled three sessions, thirty minutes each. Send a schedule and summary to your mentor. In one session, you might make introductions and cover students’ pressing questions. In the next, work together on a Google Jamboard to refine a model for how transmission works. Then, invite the mentor, parents, and school staff to discuss the student’s list of reopening recommendations. Make pedagogical expectations clear. Ensure that the mentor knows learning happens through collaboration and dialogue (even if they’re used to lecture-style training in their own career pathway).

Science STAR Victor practices medical diagnosis at a community forum.

2. Build Knowledge That Matters Together

The best way to start a conversation with a medical mentor is to build from students’ own well-researched questions. Studies show us that students engage in rich science learning when it connects directly to their own questions and life story (Harris et al, 2012). Science teachers can do this by connecting the anchoring phenomenon in science with real world observations and curiosities--and there has never been a more important or relevant anchor than COVID-19.

Before engaging with a medical mentor, have your class talk openly about their experiences with COVID-19. Ask about the current discussions they are a part of their own networks. Analyze sources of information (Family? Friends? Memes? Trustworthy news?). Have students think about their most important questions, and draft questions together. Discuss points of confusion, and work in small groups to refine questions for expert input. Then, follow up. In one classroom, a teacher asked her students to write their medical mentor a thank you note...including their questions for the next visit!

Get Real! Science teacher Alyssa Rutherford explains facilitating that kind of exchange with a medical mentor, leading towards student’s own pressing questions: “Science is only relevant if we use it to make sense of the world…Our goal is to empower students to realize their own capabilities as agents of change, to realize that their actions matter.”

GR!S Grad Alyssa Rutherford prepares her hybrid class for a mentor visit.

3. Co-create Pictures and Models, Not Just Words

Scientific research is a visual medium...but it’s not always taught that way. Understanding complex ideas takes more than words on a page. To really “get it,” try using the “modeling toolkit” (Windschitl and Thompson, 2013). Modeling is core scientific practice in which causal relationships between key factors are diagrammed and described. When students engage in modeling, they are doing the authentic work of the discipline. They also making their thinking visible for teachers, peers and other supportive folks like medical mentors. Models can be passed back and forth between mentors and classrooms. They can be worked on individually, or become a group collaboration. (Try shared Slides or Jamboard to do this on-line). When the model is accurate and supported by evidence, it will help to explain what’s happening. Models show fundamental processes and reveal students’ points of view. Use models to connect mentor conversations with scientific imagery, and talk about the causes and effects of public health decisions.

In our groups, we took a deep dive into a critical question: To mask or not to mask? Students generated models that included key scientific factors--such as airflow and the size of respiratory droplets. With our mentors, we discussed the problems of designing masks that work, and how scientists and engineers gather evidence to answer just that question. Analyzing research images together (like this youtube video capturing respiration) helped youth to make clear, evidence-based arguments about masks with their family and friends.

4. Connect Medical Mentors to Student Interests and Networks

Before diving into student questions, we like to start with a go around question: “What’s your favorite thing to learn about science?” One exciting result of linking medical mentors with classrooms was hearing stories of doctors’ career pathways.

Dr. Uzoamaka Odoemena, for example, came to class with a engaging slide--a picture of her graduation cap and gown, and a step-by-step map of her journey into medicine. Odoemena discussed how STEM programs in her public school in Maryland opened the door. “They first expos[ed] me to medicine and research, and inspired me to go to college at an HBCU where I had an awesome experience!” She went on to offer students' one-on-one time to talk more about choosing a college pathway. By linking her past experiences to the students’ present moment, this mentor showed young people how they can find a pathway towards knowledge that matters.

Dr. Cooper answers questions from students at SOTA, RCSD.

Mentorship is a proven tool for getting youth excited and engaged...and ready for life beyond school. Recent research shows that mentors--even short-term interactions-- can build “bridges” or key “links” in youths’ social networks. (For example, Christensen Institute, 2019) They can show the way towards a new pursuit or inspiring goal, creating a sense of connectedness and occupational identity. Research also shows that resilient youth often have natural mentors in place--strong ties with family or community members who provide life guidance and support (Zimmerman et al, 2002).

In our Get Real! Science programs, we bring these two kinds of mentors together. Through our “science showcase” evenings, for example, students presented their team COVID research to an on-line audience of families at their school. They screened Public Service Announcements and add them to school media channels. They answered tricky questions about COVID from parents and peers. Medical mentors attended to offer added information and supportive feedback. After six weeks of learning together, it was clear. The students knew their stuff about COVID prevention. One mentor, Dr. Jim White offered the students a big compliment: “You are the ones they’ll listen’s time to share what you know with everyone!”

5) Student Relationships are Assets. Youth have Influence and Power.

When it comes to preventing disease, kids can make a big impact through what they know. In fact, youth voices are key links between medical experts and whole communities. Researchers have found, for example, that youth peer educators can kickstart tricky conversations about infectious diseases and risks with more ease than adult experts. Why? Exactly because of their unique positions in their networks, both on and off-line! (Rice et al, 2012)

Youth on-line social networks in an HIV peer education program facilitate engagement with risk prevention messages and dialogues. Rice et al, 2012.

Youth relationships and networks are a powerful resource. Youth insiders can act as public health extenders, broadening the impacts of health programs through communication and action. We need to build from youth experiences to effectively stop COVID-19 outbreaks in schools, and youth relationships are social capital, a key resource for spreading new health practices. Leaning on the power of youth social networks can directly improve public health, and our school science and health programs can build from this resource in new ways.

We have to remember, we’re in this together. Around the world, schools, kids and medical front-line workers can build new relationships, networks and bridges to better health outcomes. We can create a new way of thinking about diseases. Teachers and school administrators are often stressed out and burdened during the COVID-19 pandemic...but we don’t need to do it all alone. Willing medical mentors are here to help, and eager students are ready to try out new roles as health communicators. And when networks of mentors support our students, we can fight the toughest battle of our lives...and win!

Works Cited

Christensen Institute. (2019, August 12). Networks of Support & Opportunity: Exploring Innovative Relationship-Centered Designs. Equitable Futures.

Harris, C. J., Phillips, R. S., & Penuel, W. R. (2012). Examining Teachers’ Instructional Moves Aimed at Developing Students’ Ideas and Questions in Learner-Centered Science Classrooms. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 23(7), 769–788.

Rice, E., Tulbert, E., Cederbaum, J., Adhikari, A. B., & Milburn, N. G. (2012). Mobilizing Homeless Youth for HIV Prevention: A Social Network Analysis of the Acceptability of a Face-to-Face and Online Social Networking Intervention. Health Education Research, 27(2), 226–236.

Windschitl, M., & Thompson, J. (2013). The Modeling Toolkit: Making Student Thinking Visible with Public Representations. The Science Teacher, 80.

Zimmerman, M., Bingenheimer, J., & Notaro, P. (2002). Natural Mentors and Adolescent Resiliency: A Study with Urban Youth. American Journal of Community Psychology, 30, 221–243.


bottom of page