Over time, sun damage can increase the risk of developing skin cancer, so it’s important to teach sun safety habits early. Madeline Ahern, a second-year University of Minnesota Medical School student, worked with peers from both the Medical School’s Twin Cities and Duluth campuses to teach 300 to 500 students about sun safety in partnership with St. Paul Urban Tennis (SPUT). 

Ahern and seven volunteers attended SPUT’s daytime youth lessons for two weeks, providing science-based lessons about the effects of the sun’s ultraviolet rays to kids aged five to thirteen. Ahern developed the program with help from SPUT and her student-run team and it was so popular she hopes to do it again in the future.

“It was spur of the moment this year because the summer program starts to roll pretty fast,” Ahern said. “We didn't really have any funding, so we worked with what we had and all the students were super helpful and supportive.”

The key points of each lesson were the same, but Ahern and her team made a point to tailor the lessons to each age group as she has learned from her experience in summer medical education. She emphasized the importance of asking open-ended questions and seeing what they know and want to know, rather than lecturing them. She was inspired by her experience shadowing a pediatric dermatologist who holds open dialogues with her young patients about sun safety and the importance of protecting their skin against harmful UV rays.

“We’re learning a lot about how to be an effective educator,” Ahern said. “And so, especially for young students, they like learning tools that can help them retain information. So, we used UV beads that change color in the sunlight as a teaching aid.”

Although these color-changing ultraviolet sensitive beads were initially meant for younger groups, their reception and the associated materials were well-received across age groups as they combined learning and crafting. 

Ahern intends to continue the program next year, and hopes to recruit more student volunteers  to increase their range within SPUT’s more than 16 summer lesson locations. SPUT boasts 2,700 students served each year through tennis lessons, community engagement and other programming.

As a SPUT alumna, Ahern said one of the most impactful pieces of this program was being able to talk to kids about attending medical school and becoming a doctor.

“As medical students, sometimes we get into this trap of being so busy that we’re not available to people and I think this is a good way to integrate ourselves into the community,” she said.