Downtown campus ushers in next era of medical training for students

Emphasis on small group, “active learning,” to shape next generation of UB’s med students


An assortment of study spaces overlooking a bustling Allen Street is just one way UB’s new medical campus is changing how its students learn. The new campus has been built to meet the changing demands for its graduates, explained Dr. Alan Lesse, senior associate dean for the medical curriculum.

The Liaison Committee for Medical Education (LCME), the board which accredits medical schools, is looking for schools to incorporate more active learning and team based education to help students with an easier transition into practicing medicine –– an increasingly holistic, interdisciplinary field.

With an increased number of small classrooms and interactive group learning, alongside new state of the art audio-visual technology, the new campus is suited to gradually reshape the next generation of doctors. Students say they feel the difference. From smaller, group-based classes to working in close proximity to healthcare centers like the Gates Vascular Institute and Roswell Park Comprehensive Care Center, the new medical campus “feels” like med school in a way that the old campus just didn’t.

“I’m blown away by the difference,” Justin Bird, a first-year medical student said. “Up on [South Campus], it just felt kind of dead and dry. It was so outdated –– there wasn’t anything that made it feel like med school. The vibe here is a lot more professional. You feel ready to go, and feel like you have that extra little bit of motivation to want to do well and act professionally.”

On South Campus, Bird was used to going to classes mostly in big, 30-year-old lecture halls. Not so at his new school, where many courses involve an instructor going through a case with one to two dozen students.

“It feels more integrated, like actual medicine rather than just learning things,” Bird said. “We’re presenting cases in small groups and we’ve got to kind of work together to solve a problem. It’s a lot more similar to what it’s going to be like in the real medical field, rather than just presenting a case in front of 100 students, cause that’s just not realistic.”

This emphasis on group learning is just one part of the medical school’s vision for its new curriculum.

“Active learning” is a teaching technique where students are not just asked what they know, but are asked to identify what they don’t know. The next step for students is to determine what resources or experts to consult to get better opinions and to assess and analyze the strengths and accuracy of their own knowledge, according to Lesse. This type of instruction mimics the thinking process used in everyday medicine.

Some schools, like the University of Vermont, have gone all the way toward no-lecture, all group-based, active learning. That’s not the plan for UB, Lesse said.

“We don’t think that it’s one or the other,” he said. “We still think that some lecture is necessary. Lecture is a very efficient way to deliver lots of information with few resources. But you can add to that, with things like ‘clicker questions’ to make even the lectures more engaging.”

The medical curriculum won’t see any drastic changes right away, but will begin to adapt itself to the new environment this coming fall.

A physical harbinger for these changes is the Sal Messenger Active Learning Center, a seminar room on the first floor which contains 24 tables with nine student seats per table, big enough to accommodate the entire first-year class of 180 students. In the center of each table are wireless ethernet cords and microphones so students can share their answers to the other students in the room and display any visuals they used on one of the four projector screens on each wall.

Even traditional lecture rooms include new features to accommodate group based learning. The M&T Bank Auditorium, where Lesse delivered the first ever lecture in the new building, features two rows of students in each landing, so a student can swivel around in their chair and work with the person behind them much easier than in traditional single row lectures.

The technology in the new halls marks a new era for medical training, with features like a speech to text recording system which allows students to search through videos of lectures for key words in order to streamline studying.

“So if I give a lecture –– this is wild –– the lecture is captured and then the content is sent to something like Amazon web services,” Lesse explained. “The video is then speech to text translated, and I tried it out, it’s unbelievable. So if you’re like, ‘What did he say about gram negatives?’ it will take you to the ten different points in the lecture and you don’t have to go searching through the video.”

Patapsco, the system used to translate the speech to text, takes roughly four hours to complete, according to Lesse.

The quality and amount of space devoted to laboratory work is another improvement that included state of the art research facilities and simulation labs for students to practice patient care, surgery and more.

Even for students later on in their education, like third-year student Eva Zimmerman, who won’t be taking many classes in the new building, the downtown campus offers a welcome change for study habits and routines.

Zimmerman, who works at the Buffalo General Medical Hospital, part of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, will study at the medical school after work rather than going home like she would have before.

“It’s just a gorgeous facility; it harbors a work environment,” Zimmerman said. “If I have kids, someday, I would have to come show them this building. It’s something you can take pride in.”

Still, there’s a twinge of longing for students who won’t get the full four-year experience downtown.

“It’s hard to not feel a little bit like that,” Zimmerman said. “I live with two other girls who are in my classes in medical school and when we initially saw [the new medical building] me and the one girl joked, we would have done so much better if we were here.”

Sarah Crowley is the senior news editor and can be reached at

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