Higher Education

Two Professors Create New Assignment on Religion and Public Health

By Cara Burnidge and Disa Cornish
College students learning together for group project. (Vladimir Vladimirov/Getty Images)

College students learning together for group project. (Vladimir Vladimirov/Getty Images)

Our story is of a religion professor and a public health professor who decided to do something new. We paired religion and public health academically because few mechanisms exist to help students consider them simultaneously in an applied way. 

Within that context, and with funding from Interfaith America’s Religion and Health Curriculum grant, we created an opportunity for our general education students to engage in collaborative learning. As associate professors in Philosophy and World Religions (Cara) and Nursing and Public Health (Disa), we combined students in the American Religious Diversity class and the Maternal and Infant Health class into groups to complete a new assignment. Both courses are cross listed as electives in a major or minor and as general education courses at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.  

Why invite general education students, rather than majors, to consider religion and birth? 

Most Americans are impacted in some way, directly or indirectly, by birth. Yet, birth experiences and outcomes differ according to socio-cultural factors. Maternal and infant health are sensitive indicators of the health of nations and of the way social structures care for these vulnerable groups. Religion is one of the many considerations families and health professionals consider when making decisions for care and support; yet it is rare for credentialing programs to address religion from specialists in the field of Religious Studies. This partnership allowed us to emphasize the development of appreciative interfaith knowledge and the application of that knowledge by focusing on hypothetical “real world” examples.  

Bringing Religious Studies and Public Health together in this way departs from the academic path for the average American college student.  

Typically, students take broad general education classes in the liberal arts and sciences and then move into major classes that offer depth into one content area. Each class is a little island unto itself, immersed in its topic. Connections or synthesis between classes sometimes happen within a major or minor, but only sometimes across disciplines. At a time when many colleges and universities are grappling with how to encourage critical thinking, educate in a world with generative AI, and prepare students for an uncertain world, there is space for new ideas in teaching and learning. 

The objectives for a shared assignment across both classes were to: 

  1. Examine the impact of religious diversity on maternal and infant health. 
  2. Identify ways prenatal relationship building around religious diversity can improve health outcomes. 
  3. Identify religious factors that could impact maternal and infant health equity.  

Working in groups that included students from each class, students had to: Without specifically requesting the patient’s religion, write down what five questions a provider (OB/GYN or midwife specifically) could ask to better understand how religious practices could impact prenatal care, birth, and infant health. 

Completing the assignment required students to use the content knowledge from their respective courses in a practical way to consider the experiences of individuals and families in healthcare interactions. Rather than focus on “religious literacy” to measure what students (or providers) know, we considered competency and understanding based on the questions providers asked. 

Religious identity, faith and practice, tailored to individual patient experiences

Centering this assignment around critical question development allowed us and our students to move away from a comprehensive knowledge of religion, which flattens internal religious diversity and too often presents religions as ahistorical and static beliefs, to an assumption of religious identity, faith and practice being tailored to individual patient experiences, a recognition of how typical it is for spiritual identity, belief, and practice to be incongruent or situated in complex debates about orthodoxy and orthopraxy. This moves toward considering cultural humility in healthcare and public health interaction and improves the conversation between patients and caregivers. 

This collaboration was timely. In 2022, The March of Dimes found that one-third of Iowa’s 99 counties were maternity care deserts, lacking access to obstetric care. This 14% of pregnant people in Iowa without a birthing hospital need to drive more than 30 minutes for care. In the year of the study, 4,176 babies were born in one of Iowa’s maternity care deserts, approximately eleven percent of all births in the state. Since many Iowa parents need to drive farther to receive care, each appointment is essential to ensure better health outcomes.  

As the assignment wrapped up, we received feedback from students.  

Many appreciated learning about a new content area. It was also clear that we pushed students into a space where they weren’t entirely comfortable: instead of allowing them to show off how much they knew, we challenged them to put their knowledge into practice. That was unexplored territory for many of them. We consider that a win. And we’ll do it again next year. 


Disa Cornish, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor, Public Health and Cara Burnidge is an Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Northern Iowa. 

Cara Burnidge. Courtesy of University of Northern Iowa
Disa Cornish. Courtesy of University of Northern Iowa