Honors Program as Innovative Influence: UW-Eau Claire Welcomes New Approach to Nursing Ed

Editor’s Note: The following story comes to us from UW-Eau Claire, and the author is Shari Lau…Honors programs often provide resources and support for course development that benefits the whole university.

Becoming an effective nurse is about more than mastering technical skills in a lab. It’s about understanding people and connecting with them to individualize their care.

Dr. Cheryl Lapp, professor of nursing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, believes her responsibility as a teacher is to prepare the next generation of nurses to see patients as people first. That’s why she created a University Honors Program course titled “Empathy Enhancement for the Helping Professions.”

The College of Nursing and Health Sciences recently presented Lapp with the 2015 Suzanne Van Ort Award for Creativity and Scholarliness for her development of the course, which uses an innovative teaching strategy focusing on theater applications.

To learn more about the “Empathy Enhancement for the Helping Professions” Honors course and Lapp’s relationship with the University Honors Program, read the Q&A below.

Q&A with Dr. Cheryl Lapp, professor of nursing

Can you describe the “Empathy Enhancement for the Helping Professions” Honors course?
This is a course I designed using theater applications to help students examine and experience empathy in face-to-face human situations that feel authentic, yet do not violate confidentiality. Theater and artistic expression can provide an intense experience for which you are present in the moment. It can also provide the immediacy of an emotional connection with an actor in a personal way, or collectively, in the context of the audience experience. Everyone knows that seeing something performed is not real life, but when done effectively, there is a “suspension of disbelief” that makes the emotional or intellectual connection very real.

In the course, we begin by learning about how empathy connects us with other people. Together we visit Dr. Jennifer Chapman in the department of music and theatre arts and do some exercises analyzing what another person may want, what obstacles may stand in the way and which strategies the other person is using to get what is wanted. Through this exploration, we all learn a little more about ourselves and our own human responses.

In the latter part of the course we also spend some time exploring communication techniques that we can carry with us into our various professions. We become aware of skills like listening more astutely, being more present in the moment, becoming more comfortable with silence and through being intentionally curious, we can all learn to refrain from making premature assumptions or taking sides. I like to leave the students feeling as though they’ve developed some tools that will foster and enhance their own capacity for empathy.

What inspired you to create this course?
I was inspired to create this course when I read an article about the “empathy enigma,” and upon further exploration, I found ample evidence in the literature documenting that empathy declines in nursing and medical students over time and with experience. This was startling to me as a nurse educator, and when listening to my graduate students in classroom discussions, I could often detect a hardening attitude in some of them about the very populations for whom we need to be advocating. I decided to make the examination of empathy in professional life the focus of my sabbatical project.

Early in my sabbatical, I became more inspired by reading the empathy-related research of a psychologist working with medical students at another university. I actually set up a telephone consultation and asked if I could observe a class session. To make a long story short, I ended up traveling to California and was invited to help facilitate a class of medical students blended with senior citizens. One of our strategies involved reading selected theater scenes with the students and senior citizens, followed by reflection and discussion of perspectives of both patient and provider. The senior participants influenced all of us to think and feel differently about situations as a result of sharing their life-informed wisdom. For me, this encounter sparked a powerful and enduring foundation for my work.

What does receiving the Suzanne Van Ort Award for Creativity and Scholarliness for your work in developing this course mean to you?
It means a great deal to receive this award from the nursing department. It demonstrates appreciation for my efforts to directly influence our ability to connect with people, and thus improve the hallmark of our practice, which is caring. The award’s recognition for course development in the University Honors Program also demonstrates the nursing department’s support of interdisciplinary work, as this offering was designed for Honors students across campus who see themselves in any helping profession, not only nursing.

What does it mean to you to have the opportunity to create a course such as this as part of the Honors program?
This opportunity is a rare gift. It’s like a dream come true for any teacher to have the chance to create an interdisciplinary course about something one is personally interested in, committed to or has a passion for, especially when it may not directly address an essential component of existing curriculum. It is a real pleasure to have been granted this unique opportunity that the University Honors Program offers.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

As one result of this exploration, I value curiosity more than ever. I see myself as a learner, always. And looking back on this first class of students, I’ll be forever amazed by the depth of personal insight that they were prepared to share with one another.

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Meet Tayo Sanders–Rhodes Scholar 2015, UW-Eau Claire

One of the most positive developments in higher education has been the establishment of honors colleges and programs in public “regional comprehensive” universities–and in the last few years both the honors programs and the universities have shown that their students can compete with any in the land.

Take the case of Tayo Sanders II, a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Honors Program student who has completed 11 research projects, published two papers in materials science journals, made 11 presentations around the country, won a Goldwater Scholarship…oh, and was named a Rhodes Scholar for 2015. 

In addition, in Spring 2015, Tayo will serve as a mentor in University Honors, co-teaching a section of Honors 100, said Dr. Jeff Vahlbusch, director of University Honors. The UW-Eau Clair Honors Program was one of five regional comprehensive honors programs we reviewed in the 2014 edition of A Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs.  The other regional university honors programs or colleges we reviewed are at Eastern Illinois, Grand Valley State, UNC Wilmington, and Western Kentucky.

“In my judgment, Tayo Sanders will rise to the very top of every endeavor in which he chooses to take significant part, and will spend his life leading,” Vahlbusch said.  “In Tayo, a truly stellar intellect and a sheer unending range of interests and abilities are united with a wonderfully engaging personality, great communications skills, and deep care and respect for others.  Everything that Tayo is and does is characterized by a humane gentleness, a fine sense of humor, and strong loyalty to the programs and organizations in which he works and plays.”

In his spare time, Tayo serves as co-captain of the university’s triathlon club, and he has competed in collegiate triathlons around the country.  And then there’s his mastery of Salsa dancing, his work as a University Ambassador and Ronald E. McNair Scholar, and his community outreach work in which he interests K-6 students in STEM careers.  But nothing gets in the way of his passion for research.

“Tayo is an outstanding researcher, and I doubt there are many undergraduate researchers possessing such a broad, yet well-developed, skill set,” said Dr. Jennifer Dahl, an assistant professor in the department of materials science.  She has facilitated and mentored Tayo’s research for three years. “I met Tayo early in his first semester at UW-Eau Claire and was instantly impressed by his poise, intelligence and enthusiasm for science.”

Tayo Sanders and Dr. Jennifer Dahl

(Tayo will earn his bachelor’s degree in materials science with emphasis in chemistry and liberal arts from UW-Eau Claire in May 2015.)

He is one new Rhodes Scholar who has already been to Oxford:  Thanks to funding from the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, he participated in a nanoparticles research project at the University of Strasbourg in France in the summer of 2013.  During the research program, he made a trip to Oxford University and met faculty and students and toured the materials labs.  It was then that he decided he wanted to pursue a doctorate at the famous institution–and now he will as a Rhodes Scholar.

A first generation college student, Tayo now wants to follow in the footsteps of his research mentor and the other faculty he has worked with in material science and the honors program.

“My ultimate goal is to become a professor and emulate the research experience I’ve had with Dr. Dahl with students of my own,” Tayo said. “I will do everything I can to be in a position where I can give hope to students like she has given hope to me. I also want to continue contributing to the pursuit of economical solar harvesting solutions, and be a powerful advocate for sustainable development and STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] education.”

“I’ve been so fortunate to have the opportunity to connect with so many faculty,” he said. “These are the individuals who have dedicated years of their lives to academic pursuits, and to be able to easily engage in direct discourse with professors creates opportunities for a much more profound comprehension of material.  UWEC’s emphasis on undergraduate research has also developed my ability to draw connections between material learned in my courses and their applications to the real world — a skill that will prove absolutely essential as I continue on my academic path at Oxford.”

“Tayo Sanders’ selection for this prestigious honor — in the company of fellow scholars from private institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, MIT and Princeton — is a testament to his outstanding effort as an undergraduate student,” said UW Chancellor James Schmidt. “It also is a testament to the contributions of the many dedicated faculty and staff here at UW-Eau Claire who day after day provide the excellent teaching and the beyond-the-classroom experiences that prepare our students to excel when they go out into the world with their Blugold degree in hand. Tayo is a shining example of the value of a UW-Eau Claire degree.”

The Rhodes Scholarships, averaging about $50,000 per year, cover all costs for two or three years of study at Oxford.  Winners are selected on the basis of high academic achievement, personal integrity, leadership potential and physical vigor, among other attributes.