Heather Butts, JD, MPH, MA

Assistant Professor of Health Policy and Management; Columbia Mailman School of Public Health 

Professor Butts teaches graduate courses on public health law at the Mailman School of Public Health. In her own research background, Professor Butts focuses on adolescent and young adult issues, along with media and film in education and online education, all of which were helpful during the shift to remote teaching. With the shift to remote teaching in Spring 2020, Professor Butts met the moment by engaging students in the “untold stories” of a discipline and creating learning opportunities for students with application outside the classroom. Read on to learn more about what Dr. Butts did in her course, what lessons and experiences she’s carrying forward, and the advice she has for other instructors at Columbia.  

Engage Students in the “Untold Stories” of a Discipline 

During the pandemic, I began teaching several new courses, including one called “The Untold Stories in U.S. Health Policy History.” The course introduces students to health leaders whose impact is largely absent from history books, from African American physicians whose work has gone unnoticed to policymakers whose legacy has yet to be written. For example, in class we discussed Dr. Alexander Thomas Augusta, who was the first Black surgeon commissioned in the Union Army during the Civil War and the first Black professor of medicine in the United States. He was a key faculty member at Howard University and was active in struggles to end discrimination on streetcars in Washington, D.C. 

During the pandemic, this course allowed students to learn key ways to research “untold stories,” methods to tell these stories, and ways to bring these stories to members of the larger non-Columbia community. As their final project, students research a public health historical figure or moment and share their findings in a project that we published online. The class was featured on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show

Create Learning Opportunities for Students with Application Outside the Classroom 

During the shift to remote teaching, and throughout the pandemic, a huge takeaway for me was that students have a real desire for real world experiences regarding their course work; this is particularly true in the midst of a global pandemic. Students want to be able to see their work in action, and learn how to have an impact outside of the classroom.

Create in-class assignments with applicability outside the course. 

In 2022, I applied for and was awarded an Innovative Course Module Design Grant through the Provosts’ Office. Because I applied during the pandemic, I wanted to use the grant to have a course with discernible, actual public health implications. I created a project asking students to create a module for other students and community members that would help them with real world application of public laws, ethics, and regulations. The purpose of the project  was to assist individuals that are not in the legal profession to learn more about public health laws, regulations, and ethics. This was of particular importance in the era of Covid-19, with individuals having a need to better understand mandates, laws, ordinances, and executive orders. Going forward, students will utilize the class in the spring of 2023 to create specific modules to present in class that are tailored to individuals not familiar with specific public health ethical and legal issues. These will then be used to create the modules that will be available for training and education. 

Foster partnerships between students and broader communities.

In March 2020, at the very beginning of the pandemic, a group of students in one of the classes I was teaching, “Integration of Science and Practice,” came up with a very innovative idea around food security in New York City corner stores. This led to the Clementine Collective, which is a community-based fresh foods initiative to deliver free fruits and vegetables to Staten Island’s corner stores. The project aims to help families from low socioeconomic backgrounds that live in food deserts with limited access to healthy food options. By partnering with neighborhood corner stores and community leaders around Staten Island, we were able to set up kiosks with free fresh fruits and vegetables that corner store customers can take for free. 

Going forward, I have continued to brainstorm ways to practically engage students and communities. This is work I was already doing before Covid, but the pandemic showed the commitment that all parties have to these efforts. Last fall, we introduced something called the “Community Spotlight” where students get to speak with individuals in a variety of disciplines around their areas and how they interact with public health professionals. This project helps students engage with communities, offering true work that helps students learn from those outside the formal academic classroom. 

Advice for Instructors and the Future of Teaching at Columbia 

Experiment with new ways of teaching and learn from colleagues. 

Disciplines can be so different, and what may work for me, based on how I work in a classroom, may be very different for my colleagues. I would say that if there’s a modality or way of teaching that you have not tried before and you’re interested, try it out. Students are usually very intrigued when a new way of teaching or thinking is introduced into a classroom.

I think the pandemic showed some of us who may have thought we were widely nimble that we may not be, and others who thought they were very stuck in their ways pivoted quite easily. Draw on being adaptable and explore new ways of thinking about teaching and bringing things into the classroom that you may not have considered before, for whatever is appropriate for your area. I would also not be afraid to reach out to colleagues in other areas and connect and brainstorm about different ways you can teach as well as possible ways to collaborate. I would say that as long as you are engaging students in a meaningful way, both for you and them, the possibilities are honestly limitless.