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St. Kate’s graduate physical therapy program celebrates 20 years

St. Catherine University celebrated the 20th Anniversary of the first graduating class of its graduate level physical therapy program at the end of September.

Anniversary events included a continuing education course with Marilyn Moffat, a nationally known physical therapist, a campus tour for PT alumnae of the Women’s Health Integrative Research (WHIR) Center and Human Anatomy Lab, followed with a reception and dinner.

History of innovative curriculum

St. Kate’s physical therapy graduate program started as a three-year master’s degree in 1991, with its first cohort graduating in 1994. “Our biggest transition — along with the rest of the country — was to move to a doctoral program for entry-level practice in 2003,” says Cort Cieminski, DPT professor and anatomy lab director.

The transition also ignited conversation among faculty leaders about how physical therapy is taught. The decision was made to move to an innovative integrated curriculum model, which offers one course at a time organized around a practice setting (such as outpatient, acute, rehabilitation) and weaves all those topics together.

In the Outpatient I course, for example, students focus primarily on the shoulder and learn its structure (anatomy) as well as how it moves (kinesiology) and how the nerves attached to it are affected. (neuroscience).

“They’re also learning how to evaluate a shoulder problem, common shoulder pathologies, basic interventions to treat those pathologies, how to document, patient care in outpatient settings, and the legal and ethical aspects of that setting,” explains Debra Sellheim, DPT professor and curriculum director.

Integrated curriculum is a testament to St. Kate’s progressive student-centered approach to healthcare education, explains Lisa Dutton, DPT program director and associate professor. Coming from a traditional physical therapy education setting, St. Kate’s approach took a little getting used to when she arrived in 2008; but she has since embraced the challenge.

“It’s nice to know what your colleagues are teaching and be able to connect that together,” she says. “We have a great group of faculty who are very dedicated to providing the optimal kinds of experiences for our students.”

When the new DPT program launched in 2003 with its integrated curriculum model, the Integrated Clinical Education (ICE) program was simultaneously rolled out. In the ICE program, students get their feet wet from the start, traveling on a weekly basis to clinical sites — with the ultimate goal of having them ready for work when it’s time to clock their full-time clinical hours. (Read more in the SCAN October 2014 feature "Diving In")

The DPT program’s integrated approach is often a deciding factor for students who, like Sarah Anderson DPT’16, choose to attend St. Kate’s.

“Most of us are here because of the ICE program and the integrated curriculum — you are learning how you are going to be practicing and that’s huge,” says Anderson. “It’s just a really great way to learn. Even in the first week onsite, we would see things that we had learned in class and are able to apply it in the clinic.” 

service learning

Service Learning

Part of the DPT program’s student-centered approach to education means not only responding to changes in the healthcare marketplace, but also considering the passions of the students and the heart of St. Kate’s mission — social justice.

“One of the biggest changes I’ve seen over the last 20 years is that our students now are much more attuned to how life is bigger than just them. They’re much more apt get engaged in the community whether politically or through volunteerism,” says Cieminski.

In their third year, DPT students are required to do a service learning experience at one of three locations — an international site in the Dominican Republic, a national site in Mississippi, and a local site in the Twin Cities.

“They also have the option of volunteering their services at a Native American diabetic foot clinic in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood in Minneapolis. The pro-bono clinic is entirely student run with a faculty preceptor who supervises,” adds Cieminski.

Student demand for more of these experiences earlier in their schooling has inspired discussion by faculty on how to better integrate social justice.

“We’ve always had some element of service learning in the curriculum, but we’re starting to be more deliberate in exploring ways to integrate this into professional activities,” says Dutton. “We’re so proud that our students and graduates are strong-minded, ethical leaders who are committed to social justice.”

Program points of pride

  • High graduation and employment placement

    From the 2011–13 DPT cohort: 96% graduated; 98% of graduates passed the national licensure exam; and 100% of those licensed secured employment.
  • Post-graduate residencies

    Since 2008, DPT graduates have secured highly-competitive residencies in sports, pediatrics, orthopedics and geriatrics specialties.

    “We’ve had great success placing at least a couple of our students each year—and some times more—into residency programs,” says Cieminski, professor and anatomy lab director. “It speaks highly for their preparation. There’s not many residencies offered around the country, so they’re very competitive to get into.”
  • Fostering the DPT-PTA relationship

    St. Kate’s is one of only a half dozen universities in the nation that offer both PTA (physical therapist assistant) and DPT programs, which provides another way to integrate learning: students from both programs periodically work in the classroom together.

    “We've been leading the pack in that regard," notes Sellheim. "Our DPT students have a huge advantage by graduating with an increased understanding of physical therapist assistants’ educational background, and how to direct and supervise them."
  • Human anatomy lab

    St. Catherine University’s human anatomy lab opened in 2011, making it the second largest lab of its kind in Minnesota. Including PT students, nearly 600 students from various programs go through the lab in a given academic year, says Cieminski.

    “We no longer have to rely on other schools’ facilities, we oversee the schedule and that’s definitely much easier. But I think the most significant point of pride is more philosophical — we’re one of the only labs that serve all three degree levels,” he explains. “Being in the lab is a powerful visual experience for our students — it’s 3-dimensional as opposed to seeing it in a textbook or on a slide”

Related content:

"Diving In" (SCAN, October 2014)

"Saving lives, one foot at a time" (St. Kate's newswire, 2010)

More 20th anniversary event photos can be found on the University’s flickr site.


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Oct. 8, 2014 by Sharon Rolenc

See also: Alumnae/i, Faculty, Healthcare, Leadership, Social Justice