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A career preview for high schoolers - at the bench.

"Does it takes two or three weeks of lab training to become a medical technologist?"

Interested high school students ask many innocent questions of that sort. We usually try to clear up their confusion by explaining the curriculum demands, lab training requirements, and various career options.

"But what does a technician or technologist actually do?" many students reply. "How do I know I'd like it?" Our only other suggestion used to be a walk-through tour of our 741-bed hospital laboratory, although casual observation detects little of the complexity of a technologist's work.

We finally designed a better way to promote the profession to young career-hunters: the chance to learn by doing in a short, hands-on introduction to the clinical laboratory. After three years, this program has proved an effective, enjoyable, and inexpensive way to give potential recruits a real-life taste of medical technology.

We targeted the 7-1/2-hour program to selected groups of high school seniors, each attending voluntarily after school for three afternoons in a single week. The free, noncredit program runs for several weeks in the early fall, when students are narrowing their college choices and thinking actively about career goals. Some are growing panicky with indecision; others are already making anxious plans to get into medical school. Whatever decision they make, our program gives them a close-up look at an alternate medical career path, along with some useful scientific skills and background for college lab work.

Applicants are recruited through an information package we send to senior-level science teachers and guidance counselors at eight high schools within a 30-mile area. The package contains brochures, shown in Figure I, program objectives and outlines (Figure II), and application forms. Teachers and counselors are asked to recommend interested students who have taken college preparatory courses in science and math and have an A to B average, since academically weaker students tend to flounder in this concentrated seminar. School officials hand out the applications, and students return them directly to us.

Each year, we hear from many more applicants than we can accommodate, so we try to select those with the strongest and most appropriate background. Entrance requirements are high, and we make it clear that selection is considered an honor. We limit each group to six. That's as much bench space as we can spare in the chemistry section's research area, alongside our 10 staff medical technologists.

A deliberate mix of students from different schools curtails the playfulness that is common among close friends. It also gives them a chance to meet new peers with similar goals and interests. For insurance purposes, all participants register with the hospital's office of volunteers before the first meeting.

Right from the start, we give students what they want: action and involvement, with as little didactic instruction as possible. The three intense sessions cover four main objectives: to relate present biology and chemistry knowledge to the work performed in a clinical laboratory; to direct students in performing several actual tests; to introduce them to modern lab techniques and instrumentation; and to help them evaluate and interpret their work.

In the first session, students learn the principles of the spectrophotometer and its use in the lab. While many have studied the concept in school, few have had the opportunity to practice it. Naturally, we provide plenty of explanation and close supervision when they take turns using the laboratory's instrument.

We explain various methods of volume measurement and different kinds of pipettes, pipettors, cuvettes, and other equipment. Most of the group will go on to more advanced scientific studies in college, and we hope this experience will ease their transition to more sophisticated techniques.

The next afternoon, the group performs a dilution-type experiment we designed for them using a copper sulfate solution. After giving explicit instructions, we try to leave them as much on their own as possible. They do their own setups, take readings on the spectrophotometer, and graph their measurements. The point of the exercise, after all, is to get a feeling for being a real-life lab professional--and that includes taking complete responsibility for your own test results.

The final afternoon is usually a big hit, because the students "graduate" to testing real patient specimens. The test they perform is a basic serum glucose determination by the O-toluidine method. Each student runs a standard glucose curve, graphs it, and reads patient results from the graph. The object is to produce answers as close as possible to those already determined by the staff.

Once they've settled down from the excitement of donning real scrub suits, the students set to work earnestly. Some do better than others, of course, but all perform surprisingly well. In the course of testing, they also learn about blanks, standards, and controls, and discuss the clinical significance of their results in the diagnosis of hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia.

We make it clear that these basic exercises don't give a comprehensive picture of the rewards and frustrations of being a technologist. On the laboratory tour, students learn that most of our work is done on large automated analyzers, but we also remind them that this space-age instrumentation functions on the same principles they're learning through manual methods.

If asked about salaries, we reply honestly that none of us will become a millionaire as a laboratorian. We will, however, make a reasonably good salary. And in this area, thanks to a chronic shortage of well-trained lab personnel, we will also be quite confident of staying employed.

Whether they eventually choose medical technology as a profession or not, our students earn a number of lasting benefits from their crash course in lab life. First, they gain a general idea of the rigorous demands and responsibilities of clinical lab work, as opposed to the trial-and-error atmosphere of a high school laboratory. They meet practicing technologists and hear lab jargon and informal conversations about the field. They find a sense of accomplishment in an interesting and heretofore mysterious profession.

In addition, students start to learn useful measuring and organizing techniques. They meet like-minded peers from other schools. Most of all, they have the chance to experience the sights, sounds, smells, and satisfactions of a promising scientific career.

Students and high school officials respond to the program with appreciation. Several "alumni" have written letters of thanks, and some have stopped by to tell us how the sessions helped them in their college work and career planning. We don't know yet whether any will enroll in the lab's own program, but one student we're particularly proud of reports that he is now doing well in medical school.

The program makes an excellent promotion and recruitment tool for laboratories willing to invest some time and effort in the profession's long-range future. You may not see an immediate payoff in increased medical technology enrollments, but you will have the pleasure of opening new doors for young and talented people, and seeing their enthusiasm grow.

Sometimes, those rewards can be very definite. We remember one student bidding goodbye after the final session. "Thank you so much," she said warmly. "Now I know what I want to do."
COPYRIGHT 1984 Nelson Publishing
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Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Luce, Eleanor P.; Holimon, James L.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Feb 1, 1984
Words:1185
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