Simmons Helped Scott A. Lancaster '19PhD Become a Better Professor, Now His Health Professions Division Excels
The HPED faculty are practitioner-scholars who understand both working in healthcare and educating future healthcare providers. That real-world expertise combined with academic acumen are the bedrock of the program.
What inspired you to pursue a PhD in health professions education (HPED)?
I began working in Emergency Medical Services when I left the military in 1999. I was already an EMT and thought it seemed like a good way to make a living until I decided what I wanted to do for a living later in life.
Shortly after starting paramedic school in 2001, I began teaching EMT students at a local hospital, starting as a lab instructor. Over the years that followed, I became a lead instructor, then program director for paramedic students both at a hospital-based program and later at the college level. I found teaching to be my passion, and eventually, I started doing it full-time.
Tell us about your current position as Dean of Health Professions for Northern Essex Community College (NECC).
As Dean of Health Professions, I oversee the college’s 20 degree and certificate programs in health professions. NECC is a Hispanic-serving institution with approximately 5000 students, and approximately 1200 of those students are in my division.
Along with my normal day-to-day supervision of the division, as a member of senior academic affairs leadership, I’m also involved in many activities across the college, including but not limited to the college finance committee, enrollment dashboard team, and most recently as the health advisor of our COVID-19 task force. My position is also deeply involved in outcomes assessment and accreditation.
What do you find most rewarding about this work?
The most rewarding aspect of the work is helping our students be successful. The Health Professions Division is in Lawrence, and many of our students are immigrants, English-language learners, and come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. The skills they learn at NECC are truly a way to change their lives for themselves and their families. It is inspirational to see the tears of joy and excitement at commencement each year as our students cross the stage, often as the first members of their families to graduate from college.
We also have many students who some may consider as “non-traditional,” meaning outside the normal 18–25-year-old age group. In fact, just under half of our student body in Health Professions is “non-traditional” by that metric. This population is very personal to me — I didn’t graduate from college with my undergraduate degree until I was 35 years old, already married, and many years into my working life.
While my background differs from our student population, we do have a few shared experiences. I understand the hard choices that have to be made when balancing school, family, and work. I know the struggles these students face, the sacrifices they make when they decide to go back to school, and how important that education is for their families ultimately. Their success is why we all go to work every day.
The HPED program at Simmons was purposely and intentionally designed to help us educate the future workforce in healthcare.
Why did you choose to attend Simmons?
After beginning teaching at the college level, I realized that while we hire content experts to teach our health students, many faculty have little formal education in education. We attempt to model what we perceive as best practices from our own education and then learn on the job, often through formal and informal mentorships by fellow faculty and professional development opportunities. What became very clear to me was that I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and though I thought I was pretty good as an educator, it was obvious that there was so much more to learn.
A co-worker of mine at NECC was a recent graduate of the health professions education PhD program at Simmons, and after many conversations with her, it seemed like Simmons may be a good fit. I attended an information session with the program director, and I was sold by the end of the night. The HPED program appeared to be exactly what I was looking for — I wanted to learn education from experienced health educators, which is what this program offered.
While it’s true that educational pedagogy, the foundations of pedagogy, are the same throughout higher education, health professions are somewhat unique. We are training providers to take care of people in their time of need, to work both independently and collaboratively at the same time, to lead, and to follow. Providing care is not just technical skills — it’s also compassion and the affective domains, often in times of crisis and high emotions. It’s training future providers to treat across the age spectrum. Add to that numerous, strict accreditation requirements and clinical rotations, the practice of educating future healthcare providers is, in fact, unique, in my opinion. The HPED program at Simmons was purposely and intentionally designed to help us educate the future workforce in healthcare.
In your opinion, what is the best feature of the health professions education program?
The faculty — both within HPED and the larger Simmons community. The HPED faculty are practitioner-scholars who understand both working in healthcare and educating future healthcare providers. That real-world expertise combined with academic acumen are the bedrock of the program. Combining that with the passion and dedication the other faculty provided in research methods, statistics, and more makes for a well-designed and highly effective doctoral program.
Tell us about your experience in the health professions education PhD program at Simmons.
I enjoyed the entire program at Simmons, though a couple of experiences stand out. My “Qualitative Research Methodology” course with Professor Daren Graves opened my eyes to the power of qualitative research. During that course, I took a trip to the Dominican Republic to help the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo develop the first Paramedic program in that country. The trip occurred during the “Columbus Day” holiday in the United States and was at the beginning of the push to change that holiday to Indigenous Peoples Day in many parts of this country.
While I was there, I had a couple of assignments to complete for Professor Graves, including a short ethnography. As I was in the DR and was staying next to Christopher Columbus Square in Santo Domingo, I decided to attempt to talk to people about their feelings about Columbus in the country he conquered 400 years ago. Hearing their perspectives on both the man, the legacy, and the controversy here in the States firsthand was an amazing experience. That is not something I would have thought to do, nor would I have had even the most rudimentary skills to perform, if it wasn’t for Professor Graves. AND – I got an A on the assignment!
The knowledge I gained at Simmons allowed me to be a much better professor, which improved learning outcomes for my students and allowed the paramedic program I directed to excel.
Additionally, Dr. Jennifer H. Herman from the Center for Faculty Excellence is a renowned expert in educational pedagogy, assessment, and curriculum development. I was lucky enough to have her as a professor early in the HPED program. I was fortunate enough to work with her on a grant-funded project, Learning Assessment Research Consortium (LARC) as a research analyst. LARC was a project involving multiple universities to develop and produce an open-access learning outcomes assessment program for use throughout the United States. In fact, the program is now hosted on the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) website. That position has been incredibly transformative in my professional career, and I was only successful in that role because of Dr. Herman’s instruction in the HPED program.
I also think my cohort in the HPED program was instrumental in my success there. Yes, I have to credit the amazing faculty and staff, but honestly, my classmates were invaluable. Any PhD program is intense, but all of us in HPED at the time were working full time either in higher education or healthcare while also taking multiple courses per semester at Simmons. Three nights a week on campus, starting with study groups together many days, late night and early morning phone calls and emails… We leaned on each other for support to power through. That was something I will never forget.
Do you feel the health professions education PhD from Simmons helped advance your career?
Without a doubt, and in many ways. First off, the most obvious to me – I wouldn’t be in my current position at NECC without the education I received at Simmons. The knowledge I gained at Simmons allowed me to be a much better professor, which improved learning outcomes for my students and allowed the paramedic program I directed to excel. This led to further opportunities within the college, including being a co-chair and writer for our 10-year NECHE self-study and promoting from program director to assistant dean, all while still in the HPED program.
Outside of NECC, I am very involved in the paramedic profession nationally. I have the honor to currently serve on the Board of Directors for two national organizations, including the National Association of EMS Educators and the American Paramedic Association. Being elected by the membership to the board of the NAEMSE, I don’t think it would have happened if not for the HPED program.
Since graduating from Simmons in 2019, I’ve been invited to work on a few task forces and committees of other national organizations. Prior to my Simmons journey, I was involved regionally, but now I have found myself in a more national role, and I believe my education at Simmons is responsible for allowing me to have these opportunities.