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Graduate Students Staff School Hearing Clinic

 Graduate Students Staff School Hearing Clinic

02/05/2014 

Since October, 12 SUNY Cortland graduate students have made short work of what is usually a semester-long chore for Cortland Enlarged City School District school nurses: screening every child in kindergarten, first, third and fifth grades for hearing difficulties, fulfilling New York state guidelines on behalf of the elementary schools.

The graduate students screened approximately 800 kids. It marked a major milestone for the campus because it was the first time SUNY Cortland students have conducted hearing screenings for all the district’s young schoolchildren.

The volunteer audiology screeners, who started this past fall, comprise SUNY Cortland’s first class of master of science in communication sciences and disorders candidates. The graduate students looked upon this time-consuming, but necessary, service as a terrific hands-on learning opportunity.

The clinics are a natural outgrowth of the College’s Center for Speech, Language and Hearing Disorders, which is located in the Professional Studies Building on campus and offers services to the Cortland community such as speech-language and hearing evaluations and speech and language therapy.

Instead of having their field experience take place on campus, the graduate students entered the schools, where they set up their audiology equipment in an empty classroom on either a Wednesday or Friday. Next, a stream of youngsters walked by the four students who were conducting the faculty-supervised screenings.

“We got our clinical hours and experience,” said Jenna Vinditti ’12 of Pougquag, N.Y., about her and her classmates’ experience. “All those students got their hearing screened and we helped the school nurse.”

Vinditti and a number of her classmates also completed their undergraduate degrees in speech and hearing science at SUNY Cortland, and many during their four years gained practical experience with clientele in Cortland County. Now, as they enter the graduate studies phase, the class gets additional experience working one-on-one with the youngsters in a clinical setting.

 “It’s something you really need to understand,” said one graduate student, Michelle Fraser ’13 of Scotia-Glennville, N.Y., about her week of time among the tots. “Even just communicating with children and getting to know how to work with children and making it enjoyable, too, is really important to know how to do.”

The clinics demonstrated just how much communities need the profession to which the students aspire.

“We are helping someone to communicate, and communication is so essential to life,” said graduate student Kelli Carsten of Syracuse, N.Y. “This field brings us so many areas of interest to work with: biological, medical and helping people communicate. If someone has a physical loss, they still can communicate, but if someone can’t communicate, for whatever reason, it’s horrible. It affects your quality of life so much.”

The students looked to Michael Pitcher, a SUNY Cortland lecturer in communication sciences and disorders, to mentor them in this hands-on learning experience.

 “It’s a win-win type of situation,” said Pitcher, who also supervises students enrolled in related majors in their audiology clinical fieldwork. “Historically the school nurses have done all the hearing screening and when there’s only one nurse to do all the screening for 180 to 200 students, it takes up a significant chunk of their time. We can pretty much go in and take care of it in about a week. It frees up their school nurses and at the same time provides valuable clinical time for our students.”

The College piloted the program for the last three years with the Cortland District’s Barry Elementary School before addressing the needs of schoolchildren for the whole district, he said.

“We wanted to get our feet wet and see if we could work in the elementary grades first,” Pitcher said.

Groton kid, grad student and Mike Pitcher
Michael Pitcher, above right, does a "high five" with Groton Elmentary School first grader Judson Holl as SUNY Cortland senior speech and hearing science major Meaghan McElroy of Carmel N.Y., watches. In the above left image, Jill Greinert, a SUNY Cortland senior from Niagara Falls, N.Y., also "high fives" with Groton first grader Imari Mickensi People, to signal that a testing tone was heard.

“This past fall’s screenings were in fulfillment of the New York state guidelines for elementary schools,” he said. “Also required are the seventh and tenth grades, but that’s for the future, I guess.”

This spring, the hearing screenings were restarted with undergraduate students in a Tompkins County elementary school.

“I am grateful Mike is able to bring students to Groton for the screenings,” said registered nurse Juliana Cobb, who works at Groton (N.Y.) Elementary, where the newest hearing screenings are taking place for kindergarten, first, third and fifth grade children. “Not only does it save me time, his experience is very helpful. I always seek his opinion on any kid whom we wonder about or who has known speech issues. It's always wonderful to have the students here as well.”

Evaluating that many children requires a set routine.

“They were all so great: just in and out,” Vinditti noted about the actual screening experience of a steady stream of little clients. “We screened about 200 students in a few hours, just the four or us (at a time) and Mr. Pitcher, who’s always ready to lend his expertise.”

After their professor had checked the children’s ears, the four graduate students would check their hearing with an audiometer, a common medical device used to evaluate hearing loss. Pitcher checked their work in case a youngster needed to be rescreened, and performed a tympanogram as needed. That procedure assesses the mobility of the eardrum and middle ear pressure, which affects how sound is conducted.

“We were looking to expand our opportunities for graduate students,” Pitcher said, explaining how the mass screenings came about. “For our inaugural class this fall, I had been trying to think of ways to provide opportunities for them to get some diagnostic hours as far as hearing goes. Hearing screening is within the scope of practice for speech-language pathology.”

Working with Cortland Enlarged City School District Assistant Superintendent Judi Riley, Pitcher developed a field placement agreement between the district and the SUNY Cortland School of Professional Studies, which contains the Communications Disorders and Sciences Department. The College agreed to serve all the schools this way and the pact may foster future collaborations with the district, such as informational outreach to young schoolchildren.

The students joined forces to rise to the challenges of this and future assignments.

“There are only 12 of us in the (graduate) class and we really have formed a tightknit group,” Fraser said. “We help each other. I feel really fortunate to have been accepted into the program.”