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Drum Circle Helps Students Brainstorm Solutions for Health Center

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On a Friday morning, Kristen Arant addressed the 20 public health students gathered around her: “You’re going to have a musical experience today.”

With that, Arant led Dr. Stephen Thomas’ “Fearless Ideas” class in an hour-long drum circle featuring a variety of West African drums, other percussion instruments and the students’ voices.

The drum circle session was part of Thomas’ Redesigning Health Care course (HLSA 484), where students use design thinking strategies to reimagine the delivery of healthcare at the Susan D. Mona Center for Health and Wellness in Temple Hills, Maryland. Throughout the semester, students work through the five phases of the design thinking process — empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test — to find ways the center can better provide its health, wellness, legal and immigration services to its majority-minority patients.

Students had already traipsed through barber shops, gas stations and laundromats in the neighborhood interviewing residents about health care and the Mona Center. They learned that few neighborhood residents knew of the Mona Center’s offerings, and Thomas said that raising awareness will be a major part of their proposals for the center.

That Friday, students were beginning to craft those solutions, and the Arant’s drum session in the University of Maryland’s Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship helped them loosen up, work together and generate new ideas.

Arant — who goes by the moniker “Drum Lady” — has hosted similar drum circles at schools, churches and events across the Washington area over the last 15 years. She regularly teaches drum classes to young girls, and she leads several area drumming groups, including the all-female Bele Bele Rhythm Collective.

Arant told the class drumming is a way to express emotion “through the language of the instrument,” and participating in a drum circle can foster flexibility and confidence.

Thomas said he frequently brings the arts and humanities into the brainstorming process because he wants students to generate ideas beyond “the cookie-cutter solutions we already have.”

This is the third year Thomas has led students in a design-thinking course focused on the Mona Center, which launched last year in collaboration with the Maryland Center for Health Equity, Catholic Charities of Washington DC, and Doctors Community Hospital. Earlier classes pitched in on the planning and development of the center, while his current students are helping to refine its offerings.

Last year Thomas brought a yoga instructor to class. This year, the drum circle aimed to both stimulate creativity and model the inclusivity that students’ solutions should embody, Thomas said.

“The drummer brings up this question: ‘How do we bring people from different backgrounds together to create harmony?’” Thomas said.

Now, students are taking the drum circle’s lessons in openness and inclusion and crafting awareness campaigns to promote the center among neighborhood residents.

“The drum circle helped me think outside the box when developing plans for the clinic and how it can meet community needs,” said Hannah Scully, a senior public health science major. “I’m thinking more about collaboration, about how we can build off of each other’s ideas.”

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