Walls Going Up at UAMS NW Campus to House U of A Occupational Therapy Program

Jun 19, 2019 | College News, In the News, Occupational Therapy

From the outside, the split-level house on the side of the hill looks unremarkable with its small stature, vinyl siding and 1960s carport.

Inside, a hands-on learning lab and opportunity await. If you step into the space through the downstairs door, you’ll be greeted by Teresa Strong, the department’s administrative supervisor, at the front desk. Nearby, you’ll find a small kitchen area, several offices for faculty members and a meeting room.

If entering through the upper level carport, you’ll find a space that looks like a typical living space, with two bedrooms — a child’s room with a crib, baby changing table, and bunkbeds, and an adult bedroom. A small kitchen, a space for washing clothes, an open dining room-living room, and an office, which will be useful for helping students think through how to help patients who may be returning to work with physical issues.

OT house, U of A, child's bedroom

The house will serve as the non-traditional training ground to emphasize every day, real-life challenges people face in their homes after illness or injury.   

An inaugural cohort of 32 students will begin their studies in January 2020 at the University of Arkansas’ house on the hill and they’ll be the first to earn an entry-level clinical doctorate degree in occupational therapy.

The new program is a joint offering between the College of Education and Health Professions at the U of A and the University of Arkansas for Medical Science on the Northwest Regional Campus, which is less than a mile away from the OT house. Students will have the opportunity to learn on both campuses. While finishing touches are being made at the Occupational Therapy House on the hill, learning space renovations are just getting started at UAMS NW.

Walls are going up now on the first floor of the UAMS NW campus.

There will be over 7,000 square feet of learning lab space, including two “apartments” that provide different learning opportunities than the OT House, with a fully handicap accessible bathroom, including a shower that simulates a hospital setting so OT students can learn how to work with patients who may be in a nursing home or medical facility.

There’s also a large space called the Lifespan Center which will serve as a classroom with moveable desks where students and faculty will use active learning strategies to design innovative interventions for people of all ages who may have physical, mental or neurological issues. The center will also have  swings, balance boards and other pieces of equipment to address sensory needs, balance and endurance across the lifespan, said Kandy Salter, a professor and Academic Fieldwork Coordinator for the OT program.

One of the labs will include a 3-D printer for creating prototypes of adaptive equipment and splints.

Salter noted that the profession of occupational therapy originated over 100 years ago and many of those foundational practices are still used today. Patients are still encouraged to engage in handicrafts (like crocheting or woodworking) as a way to improve fine motor skills, cognitive skills like sequencing, as a way to deal with stress and anxiety. Students will learn how to use activities of daily living and leisure skills as interventions for future clients.

Kandy Salter

Sherry Muir, who was appointed program director for the OT program in September 2017, is thrilled students will have both sophisticated learning spaces like those at UAMS as well as the home setting at the U of A for a true hands-on experience. After all, students graduating from the program will need to think through practical ways of helping their patients do normal, everyday tasks, like getting a walker into the bathroom or changing a baby while recovering from a car accident, she said.

 “We’ll be teaching our students to be problem solvers,” Muir said. “We want to expose them to a variety of situations that their patients will be in and say ‘Design something innovative! What do you need to do to solve this problems with your patient?” Salter noted that occupational therapy is not only a science, but also an art.

Professors will focus on preparing students to address a person’s occupational challenges across their lifespan, she said. For example, they will provide occupational therapy assessment and intervention for children from birth to age 3, for school-aged kids experiencing learning, mental health and behavioral challenges, and adults facing a sudden life-changing disability, chronic health conditions and reduced ability to manage activities of everyday life because of normal aging.

Upon completion of the program, students will receive an entry-level clinical doctoral degree which will help prepare future therapists for practice in school, medical, and community settings. The cohort will progress together over three years and only one cohort will start each year.

Muir, who is considered a founder in the emerging area of occupational therapy in primary care, said the program’s mission and vision is intentionally different from that of other institutions.

“We want to push the boundaries, shake up the way this is normally taught,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of interest from people who are interested in OT as a second career.”

The OT faculty look forward to collaborating with other health professions on both campuses. For example, OT faculty are teaching a psychosocial course this summer for UAMS physical therapy students. The physical therapy department has an anatomy lab with plasticized bodies in various stages of dissection that will be available to the OT students. The OT spaces will contain pediatric equipment that other health professions will be able to utilize for teaching as well.

UAMS physical therapy department

Muir has hired four faculty members, but still has one more position to fill.

Faculty members currently include Salter, two assistant teaching professors, Mark Koch and Anna Harris, and Assistant Professor Jeanne Eichler. The department is actively searching for one more assistant professor.

Until January 2020 rolls around and the new program kicks off, there are monthly meetings for prospective occupational therapy students to attend and a pre-occupational therapy club has started on campus, Muir said. In the meantime, there’s plenty of construction to be completed at UAMS and more furniture that needs to be placed at the U of A house to simulate everyday living conditions.

The UAMS OT space is expected to be complete by September.

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