SHPEP Virtual ImageEntering the summer of 2020 was a complicated time. As a state, Alabama was starting the process of reopening. As an institution, the University of Alabama at Birmingham remained in limited business operations—managing University courses online and administrative responsibilities via work-from-home. This in-between stage created many questions for people enrolled in UAB programs, especially those coming from other states with their own set of COVID-19 guidelines.

In an effort to maintain a sense of normalcy, teams across UAB’s campus shifted, repurposed, and adapted strategies to fit within the University’s COVID-19 policies. In the SOM Office for Diversity and Inclusion, the summer programs team knew almost immediately after work-from-home orders had been enacted, that the annual Summer Health Professions Education Program (SHPEP) would need to be retooled to fit the new normal.

Supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, SHPEP is offered to first- and second- year college students. This traditionally six-week program is a partnership between UAB School of Medicine, School of Dentistry, School of Optometry, and School of Health Professions (home of Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy). To host SHPEP, UAB had to compete through a series of applications, visits, and even follow up appointments—each designed to ensure only the best schools hosted such a prestigious program. In the end, UAB became one of only 12 schools in the country to call itself home to SHPEP.

During a “normal” year, around 350 students from across the country and Puerto Rico send in applications to be one of only 80 participants selected. Of those 80, classes typically started with anywhere from 74-78 students. This year, the program received 400 applications and began the modified four-week virtual program with a full class of 80.

Shortly after states began issuing stay-at-home orders, in mid-March, the national program office knew curriculum for 2020 needed to pivot. To stay on track, the national office set minimum teaching requirements to guide the 12 schools through their first virtual program. To get a better understanding of the students’ needs, UAB’s SHPEP team sent out a survey. From this, our team found overwhelming student support to participate in a comprehensive online program.

To make the first virtual SHPEP program a success, the team at UAB found a way to substitute in-person learning modules and experiences with technology. These experiences were broken down into three major categories: Patient Care, E-Learning, and Speakers.

Patient Care

One of the hardest, yet most valuable experiences the SHPEP team wanted to replicate, was the student’s ability to shadow doctors—observing their methods and interactions with patients. As a solution, the team partnered with the Office for Interprofessional Simulation (OIPS) to present virtual Opioid Simulation, Poverty Simulation and Patient simulation. They also acquired access to a comprehensive KAPLAN learning tool that simulates a patient. To get started, students select one of the five simulations they have access to—each with their own patient history and built-in responses. Participants then proceeded to ask the right questions with the ultimate goal of giving a diagnosis and seeing the “patient” through treatment. Throughout their interaction with the simulator, KAPLAN’s learning tool tracked what questions are asked and provided feedback to the student. Dr. McNicholas-Bevensee, Associate Professor and Program Director for SHPEP, adds “using this program together with the virtual simulations will help empower our students to master patient assessment and diagnostic reasoning.” The students were given an opportunity to practice these skills during simulated patient encounters organized by the Office of Standardized Patient Education.


Canvas, an online learning management program used by the University, set up a structured experience for students. Within the program, students had access to all the things they needed to be successful—videos, workbooks, readings, etc. Content for these modules was provided by faculty from across campus. To add to their learning, the SHPEP team even created quizzes that participants needed to take before progressing to the next lecture series.

While the e-learning platform is most commonly used for traditional online learning, UAB’s SHPEP program didn’t want the students to lose out on “seeing” Birmingham. To ensure that was not lost, students had access to guided videos of UAB and participated in reflections.


During this four-week SHPEP experience, guest lecturers and diversity speakers were incorporated into the students’ learning. Dawn Fizer, a SHPEP Program Manager, said, “we did our best to ensure any of the experiences the students would be getting during an in-person year, would be accounted for during this virtual session—for example, learning about the history of our city and Vulcan or Sloss Furnace and the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham.”

The Future of SHPEP

While many programs and organizations tried to find their place in the new normal, our SHPEP team turned uncertainty into opportunity. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most common phrases had been “during these uncertain times.” However, after seeing record-breaking highs in the interest of SHPEP at UAB, there is something the team is certain of—the impact this summer enrichment program has had on students.

Allison Stephens, current medical student in the School of Medicine, a past participant of SHPEP, and mentor for the virtual session, shared “SHPEP provides a holistic experience. You shadow, get involved in hands-on workshops, and get exposure to patient interviews.” She added, “I really enjoyed how the administrators spoke to us. They never said ‘oh if you get in to medical school,’ but told us ‘when you go to medical school’—it was the affirmation I needed.”

Moving forward, SHPEP leaders plan to continue nurturing students like Allison by creating a hybrid program that incorporates some of the technology and key learnings into their in-person sessions.

A special thank you to the SHPEP team for their continued hard work and leadership.

Co-Principal Investigators:
Carlton Young, MD
Michelle Robinson, DMD, MA
Tracee Synco, PhD

Program Staff:
Dawn Fizer
Carmel McNicholas-Bevensee, PhD
Jenna Blythe-Tija, M. Ed
Carolyn Maddox

SHPEP Program Faculty:
David M. Morris, PT, PhD
Gerald Simon, OD
T. Madelyn Coar, DMD, MS

Additional Staff:
Erica Brown, M. Ed
Emuni Sanderson, MPA, SOHP
Katherine Sims, MBA, SOHP

Visit our website to learn more about SHPEP at UAB.