High Marks for Mini Schools

Good things really do come in small packages, judging by the crowds who have flocked to McGill's "Mini" educational programs


It's a rainy evening in may, and inside the comfort of McGill's newly built Tanna Schulich Recital Hall, an audience of 175 or so sit in rapt attention. Projected on a screen at the front of the hall is a film of the great classical pianist Alfred Brendel as he prepares for a recording cycle of Beethoven's piano concertos with conductor Sir Simon Rattle.

The recordings that resulted from these sessions in the late 1990s have been hailed as the definitive set of Beethoven concertos. And the woman who produced them - McGill sound recording professor Martha de Francisco - is here in the recital hall, describing in her own words that special moment in music history. It's the second lecture of the Mini- Music program, and participants are getting their money's worth.

De Francisco takes them into the world of the recording engineer and producer, offering a backstage view that few ever see. Stories of working with legends like Brendel or soprano Jessye Norman. The art of microphone placement, the sleight of hand involved in mixing enormous orchestral ensembles. The 90-minute lecture is packed with information. From the audience's enthusiastic response - they have far too many questions for de Francisco to answer - it's clear that McGill has another hit on its hands.

Dean of Medicine Abraham Fuks

Mini-Music is the latest program of "mini" lectures for McGill. Last year saw the launch of Mini-Law, and the series that started it all, Mini-Med School, is now five years old. The programs have met with a demand more typical of some theatre extravaganza, not a lecture series by a cast of bespectacled academics. Waiting lists for registration slots run into the hundreds. Lucky participants get to turn down social engagements and brag in the same breath: "Wednesday night is out of the question, dear - I'm in medical school at McGill."

"I knew it would be interesting and bring in a crowd," says Dean of Medicine Abraham Fuks, BSc'68, MDCM'70, of McGill's initial Mini-Med School program. "But it surpassed even my most optimistic predictions."

Small Beginnings

It should not be a complete surprise that people love to learn, but even for the program's founder, a McGill graduate, the scale of Mini-Med's success was a shock. In 1989, Dr. J. John Cohen, BSc'59, MSc'60, PhD'64, MDCM'68, was teaching at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver when he was asked by the chancellor to think of something that would show the local population what went on at the cloistered medical campus. Cohen came up with a brilliant notion. What if they put together a series of lectures that mirrored what students do in the first two years of med school? He recruited the Center's best teachers and they created eight lectures on basic medical science: anatomy, physiology, microbiology, pathology and the like. Then they sent out a press release.

"My only experience with any kind of outreach had been a bird-watching course I took at the local college, so I figured we'd get 20 people," Cohen says with a chuckle. "The local newspaper ran a little article and by quitting time, 1,200 people had called trying to get in. We were staggered!"

Cohen's Mini-Med success began to be duplicated across the United States. Documentation on how to put together a Mini-Med school included a map pinpointing the rapidly growing number of universities that had started their own. "Mini-Med School: An Emerging Epidemic" read the map's heading.

Still, the contagion hadn't spread to Canada, until Kappy Flanders became infected. Flanders, a member of McGill's Board of Governors, heard about the program at a conference in Dublin, sent away for the manual, and even travelled to Denver to see Mini-Med in action. McGill, she decided, had to do this. She quickly won over associate deans Dr. Yvonne Steinert and Dr. Mel Schloss. They brought Cohen to Montreal for a demonstration and Dean Fuks became a convert.

Big Success

When McGill finally launched Canada's first Mini-Med series in 2001, the team had put in long hours developing the curriculum and recruiting some of the top faculty. Lecture titles included "Immunology: Safe Inside Your Skin" and "The Human Genome: The Enigma Variations." Mini-Med would be accessible but it would be real medical science - no talking down to the audience, who ranged from high school students to octogenarians. Internationally acclaimed experts guided them through dense scientific territory. Brian Ward, often seen in the national media commenting on the bird flu threat, delivered the microbiology lecture. Renowned neurosurgeon Rolando Del Maestro's lecture "The Search for the Soul" took students into the arcane world of neuroscience. There were no tests, and you even got a diploma at the end of the series. Success was swift - Mini-Med became one of the hottest tickets in town. Mel Schloss credits much of the triumph to the irrepressible Flanders: "We call her the Dean of Mini-Med School."

So successful was McGill's program that, like Cohen's original series in Denver, it was quickly copied by other universities across the country. University of Toronto launched their own Mini-Med, then McMaster University in Hamilton, University of Western Ontario, University of British Columbia, Queen's University in Kingston, University of Ottawa and Memorial University in St. John's. The Canadian epidemic was on, with McGill as the index case.

Since then, Schloss has helped launch a version at the Montreal Children's Hospital where he is director of pediatric otolaryngology, and Mini-Med has also been offered at the Jewish General Hospital and through a seniors' association in Montreal. Lectures have been broadcast over the Internet to Macdonald Campus and to small towns in Northern Quebec. McGill's program won the gold medal for community outreach from the Canadian Council for the Advancement of Education. In all, over 80 schools have started Mini- Med, including versions in Malta and Ireland, and Cohen is helping start Germany's first school this year.

And when you have this big a hit on your hands, somebody usually starts thinking "sequel." Having dealt with the basic sciences, McGill's organizers decided to develop a new series dealing with the clinical side of medicine. Mini-Med II began in 2005 and covered Internal Medicine, Surgery, Cardiology, Neurology and more.

In his Mini-Med II lecture, Dr. John Setrakian takes students into the mind of a doctor, illustrating how physicians think when they're making a diagnosis, how the roots of a patient's symptoms can range from the commonest causes to the most rare conditions, and how doctors sort that out.

Setrakian found teaching Mini-Med to be a novel experience. "In a way, it was like gathering a whole bunch of my patients in front of me and telling them all the things I would have liked to tell them about how I reason through and approach their cases."

Music professor Abe Kestenberg offers his audience an insider’s
perspective on the life of a musician at McGill’s Mini-Music School

Course Content

Michael Green, a businessman who has attended all three Mini programs in Medicine, Law and Music with his wife, appreciates the clarity with which teachers like Setrakian communicate highly technical concepts. Through the Mini lectures, he says, "you feel connected to these other worlds."

"It's very inclusive, not exclusive, and I like the way it's presented," says Green. "It's great to listen to a surgeon talk about operating on eyes, and the audience going 'Ewww!' To listen to somebody describe how you would operate on an eye! I for one always thought there was practically nothing they could do to an eye. But they can do many things. So the doors get opened. Too often in our lives those doors are closed."

Law professor Rosalie Jukier, BCL'83, LLB'83, is on leave from McGill for two years at the National Judicial Institute in Ottawa, developing and delivering legal education to Canadian judges of all levels. But she is returning this fall as the chair of Mini-Law because she has enjoyed organizing the series so much. Kappy Flanders had gone to her after the success of Mini-Med and told her she thought the public would be as interested in learning about law as they were about medicine. "And she was right," Jukier says. "It sold out within a week. I've never been happier to have someone say, 'I told you so.'"

Jukier describes Mini-Law as an academic course, not a legal advice seminar. "We don't have a session on how to deal with your landlord, or practical tips on spousal support." The program flows naturally from lecture to lecture, moving from broad philosophical concepts like "What is law?" to how legal issues go through the court system, then onto public law fields like human rights and criminal law, and the private areas of contracts, corporate law and family law.

She herself was a Mini-Law lecturer. "It was one of the most fun things I've ever done. Actually conceiving of how to present to a lay audience interesting things about the law of contracts, where they didn't have any background and hadn't done any homework or reading, was a very big challenge. You have to think of ways to present this material in a fun and engaging manner." She used a clip from the indie film Igby Goes Down that featured a conversation about contracts and then dissected the clip as a way of uncovering the popular myths. Students learned a contract doesn't have to be in writing, and that even if things are written down very clearly, a court has all sorts of options for tempering contractual agreements. Or what happens to contractual obligation if one of the parties dies? "You can't get out of your contractual obligations by dying. Not a good trick."

Holding the audience's attention through sometimes unconventional means has been a primary feature of all the Mini lectures. Dean of Law Nicholas Kasirer, BCL'85, LLB'85, used paintings to illustrate points of family law. Professor Gordon Foote's Mini- Music lecture on jazz featured a live band. In Mini-Med, complex computer animations were developed by the multimedia experts in the McGill Molson Medical Informatics Project, and for some of the more clinical subjects, students were treated to some good old-fashioned blood and guts. "There were videos of procedures such as heart surgery, endoscopic surgery, interventional techniques in radiology," says Dr. Mel Schloss. "They see exactly what goes on."

The Dean of Medicine always reserves space for potential students. "We have been able to attract high school and CEGEP students, and students from First Nations," says Fuks. "We're trying to encourage a career in the health sciences among young men and women in and around Quebec. So this is a way of introducing them to McGill and to a career in medicine."

Rosalie Jukier does the same. "I think it's important for students to get a taste of what a legal education is all about, because I think they don't have any idea. Even if they don't apply, the exposure is a wonderful thing."

That includes exposure to some of the best teachers in the country who put in many unpaid hours of work and there are no publication credits to list among their academic accomplishments. Fuks points out "I spent a lot more time preparing my Mini-Med talk [on the human genome] than I spend on a seminar to my peers: working with the audiovisual people, reading up on it, and trying to reformulate it in a way that made sense to a non-technical audience."

But there is no shortage of volunteers. "Not only was it not difficult to get the professors to agree," says Rosalie Jukier, "but I have professors knocking down my door to do the lectures."

And the audience is knocking down the doors to get in. John Cohen is thrilled at how his brainchild has evolved. "It's brilliant. It's the one thing the University has that no one else does - knowledge. People like an intellectual workout. We've got something that people out there desperately want."

Portrait of the Doctor as a Young Geek

What's a six-year-old science nut to do when his parents won't buy him a chemistry set? Well, it's amazing what you can achieve with simple household chemicals. So explains University of Colorado medical professor J. John "JJ" Cohen (pictured), the inventor of Mini-Med School, as he recalls blowing things up in his basement while experimenting with hydrogen as a kid. "When your parents won't buy you acid, you can use drain cleaner to make your own hydrogen."

His obsession with science paid off early. The summer he was 11, growing up one block from the Jewish General Hospital, Cohen met his mentor, Martin Hoffman, who had a lab at the hospital. "He gave me a job counting radioactive iodine, which I suspect nowadays would not be recommended for 11-year-old kids. Hoffman taught me so well that the next year the biochemistry lab hired me for the summer to actually do routine patient biochemistry. And I went on doing that right through high school. It was handy that I lived next door, so if there was an emergency in the middle of the night, I could get there fast to do the blood sugar. Those lab chemists insisted that I be accurate and reliable, otherwise patients would suffer, so I was beautifully trained."

By the time Cohen was a medical student at McGill, Hoffman had moved to the Royal Victoria Hospital, a McGill teaching hospital, and so Cohen renewed his training under his hero. "In my mind, he is one of the greatest faculty that ever worked at McGill.

"When I tell people that Donald Hebb taught me Psych 100 at McGill, people who know about psychology say that would be like being taught Physics by Einstein. Or that Wilder Penfield taught me Neuroanatomy, they say, 'I can't believe it.' That was the way it was at McGill.

"I remember sitting in the classroom thinking, 'when I grow up, I'm going to be these guys.' That's been my goal my whole career. I want to have as much impact on my students as Donald Hebb, Wilder Penfield, and all those guys had on me. You say to yourself, 'Here's the most famous guy in experimental psychology teaching Psych 100 - he must think it's pretty important for us to understand it. And I better take advantage of this.'"

Cohen went onto a distinguished career in immunology and was one of the early experts in programmed cell death studies. Those famous McGill teachers made their impact: Cohen's passion for teaching has won University of Colorado's Excellence in Teaching Award every year since 1982 and he has been named Teacher of the Year five times.