Omur Elci, Asian University for Women

“Aha!” Moments in Teaching and Learning

“Life today is a public health classroom,” Omur Elci, the associate dean for sciences at Asian University for Women (AUW) said in a recent interview. AUW’s campus has been closed during the pandemic, but the urgency of COVID-19 has kept students actively engaged in the content of Dr. Elci’s public health and epidemiology class, despite the challenges of remote learning and connectivity issues. Students are eager to discuss news stories or real-life examples they’ve seen in their own communities, and that interest opens a pathway to explore the theoretical framework of public health.

Dr. Elci initially became involved with AUW as a volunteer, and subsequently joined the faculty with the goal of building a public health program. He brings deep experience to AUW – more than 30 years of teaching, research, and field experience – and a teaching philosophy described in a single word: life. “Young brains are sharp,” he points out, “and using real-life case studies and students’ own experiences makes learning more attractive than slide presentations or textbooks.” Public health issues resonate with his AUW students. “They live public health problems but they don’t yet know the theory behind them,” he said, and so a lecture often can prompt an “aha!” moment. For example, during a recent lecture on health behavior, his students immediately related the information to the use of tobacco or alcohol or other risks they’d observed in their home settings.

Dr. Elci experienced some “aha” moments himself when he recently participated in an online course offered by Harvard University’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, with support from the United Board. Through the course, he was able to connect pedagogical theory with his practical experience in teaching. “The Bok Center course gave me a greater opportunity to understand problem-based learning,” he said. Inspired by that knowledge, and his interactions with other United Board-sponsored participants, he revised the syllabus for his class.

Most of all, Dr. Elci takes inspiration from his AUW students, who represent 18 countries across Asia and the Middle East and often come from communities shaped by poverty or conflict. “It brings tears to my eyes to see how dedicated they are,” he said. “They are hungry for education.” Their dedication creates a straight line from his professional goal – “promoting the work of public health and the public health workforce” – to the mission of the university – “building women’s leadership” – with the potential to ultimately improve the health of communities in Asia and throughout the world.