I am an environmental health pracademic (and so can you!).
Popularized by Paul Posner in the field of public administration, a pracademic is a person who spans the boundaries between practitioners and academics in ways that "enrich both theory and practice (Posner, 2009)." Roles range from practitioners who supervise internships, to practitioners who teach, train, or serve on college advisory boards, to academics who practice and conduct environmental health research. These are all roles that I have played in my career as an environmental toxicologist and as the director of the Division of Environmental Health at the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and as an assistant professor at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) in the public health department.
At UIS, partnerships with pracademics produce benefits for masters of public health (MPH) students. As a department offering an MPH with an environmental health concentration fully accredited by the National Environmental Health Science and Protection Accreditation Council (EHAC), UIS has a regular need for practitioners to serve as internship supervisors. EHAC requires that graduate students have an environmental health internship experience of at least 180 contact hours (National Environmental Health Science and Protection Accreditation Council [EHAC], 2013). Many of the UIS students take internships with little or no pay that are purposed for the career growth, education, and hands-on experience of the student. Meanwhile, supervisors and agencies get the benefit of some low-cost or no-cost short-term professional help.
Additionally, EHAC requires that each accredited program have an advisory committee that typically has members who are practitioners from both public and private sectors of environmental health. Programs benefit from an active and knowledgeable advisory team of pracademics working in public health agencies and businesses because they can see the academic program from a practitioner's perspective and help ensure the curriculum is appropriate for preparation for careers in the environmental health field (EHAC, 2013).
Jessica Thoron, food program supervisor for the Sangamon County Health Department in Springfield, Illinois, is a local pracademic. She serves on the UIS advisory committee and has supervised several UIS student interns who have gained environmental health experience at the county level. "The interns not only get me out of the rut of my day-to-day activities," Thoron explained, "they tend to remind me of why I entered this field in the first place. We've also found some good employees this way!"
Because of a growing online MPH program at UIS, students are looking for internship opportunities outside Springfield in their individual locales. Nationwide, 32 undergraduate and 8 graduate environmental health programs are accredited by EHAC, so internship opportunities are needed throughout the U.S. and even on other continents (EHAC, 2013). This pracademic role is one that can be very rewarding and can help professionals be reminded of the "why" behind the "what" of their daily practice.
Academic faculty need practical experiences in environmental health as well to stay fresh in the practice. Sometimes educators can get trapped inside the bubble of academia, so field opportunities with local practitioners are welcome. I have participated in food safety activities with our local health department and pool safety visits with state inspectors. The photos and stories obtained from the field help make class lectures timely practical, and more real to my students.
At UIS, pracademics serve as adjunct faculty teaching courses in the MPH curriculum as need arises. While working at IDPH, I had the opportunity to teach environmental and occupational health each spring semester for 17 years. An IDPH deputy director has taught public health policy, an IDPH epidemiologist has taught epidemiology, an IDPH health assessor has taught environmental risk assessment, a CDC public health advisor has taught online courses, and an environmental communication specialist with a local engineering firm has taught environmental risk communication.
Teaching a college-level course is not easy, but it will keep a professional fresh in the practice and refreshed on the science of the field. Students enjoy instructors who make the subject matter in textbooks come alive with stories of real-world environmental public health experiences. Environmental health pracademics also can teach introductory science classes at local community colleges, raising awareness of the field for a new generation of students.
Lastly, pracademics have the unique opportunity to conduct useful and pragmatic environmental public health research. Too often academics are reluctant to enter the world of practice and practitioners do not have the time or inclination to publish the results of data gathered, but the pracademic can bridge the gap between these territories to design and conduct research that can produce rational and useful results. In addition, research partnerships between academia and practice provide much-needed data for informed decisions with which to improve environmental public health in our communities.
So, consider becoming an environmental health pracademic. The field and future pracademics will benefit. You will too!
Corresponding Author: Ken Runkle, 1428 N.
6th St., Springfield, IL 62702.
Colbert, S. (2009). I am America (and so can you!). New York: Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group USA.
National Environmental Health Science and Protection Accreditation Council. (2013). Accreditation guidelines and accredited programs. Retrieved from http://www.ehac office.org
Posner, P.L. (2009). The pracademic: An agenda for re-engaging practitioners and academics. Public Budgeting & Finance, 29(1), 12-26.
Ken Runkle, MA, DPA, REHS
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|Title Annotation:||GUEST COMMENTARY|
|Publication:||Journal of Environmental Health|
|Date:||May 24, 2014|
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