Graduate student Natalia Ruiz recently got out of the classroom to hone her research and communication skills. She spent six months asking Chicago residents about their hopes or concerns regarding the city's plan to convert a three-mile stretch of old railroad into an elevated linear park to link and invigorate four neighborhoods.

Ruiz, a student at the Adler School of Professional Psychology, conducted the interviews through her work for the Logan Square Neighborhood Association as part of Adler's new community service practicum. This summer, her data will appear in a report for city officials and architects who are planning the park.

Adler's community service practicum is part of its curriculum shift toward training socially responsible practitioners--a move that earned the school one of APA's 2008 Innovative Practices in Graduate Education in Psychology awards. Sponsored by APA's Board of Educational Affairs and the Council of Graduate Departments of Psychology, the awards recognize creative approaches to graduate training.

Adler shares the 2008 honors--and $5,000 prize--with the psychology department of the University of Washington (UW), which won for blending clinical and research experiences for its students.

Social studies

Adler's reshaped curriculum seeks to reflect the mindset of its namesake, Alfred Adler, who proposed that promoting social equality could reduce the prevalence of mental illness. The overhaul's cornerstone is the community service practicum, which students complete in their first year by working 10 hours a week in such settings as after-school programs, neighborhood organizations, homeless shelters and community health agencies.

Students have a range of jobs at these sites. Some hand out hygiene kits and hot chocolate to the homeless during Chicago's winter nights, and others do advocacy for domestic violence victims or grant-writing, fund raising and program planning. Students cap their experience with poster presentations on what they have learned. The best presenter wins a cash prize.

"It has served the school very well," says Frank Gruba-McCallister, PhD, Adler's vice president of academic affairs. "Many students now come here because we are doing this."

To keep the social consciousness message alive after students finish their service, Adler added three courses with a social-responsibility bent: One on how politics and economics affect human functioning, another on the globalization of health care and one on policy-making and advocacy. Adler has also added an urban planner, a civil rights attorney and a public health expert to its faculty to team-teach the new courses with psychology faculty.

With hopes that Adler students will catch the public service bug long-term, the school added a community-service career counselor to its staff and created its Institute on Social Exclusion, an organization that offers students assistantships on community projects. Several students recently aided an institute initiative that helped to eliminate a breast cancer screening backlog at a Chicago public hospital. The waiting list for screenings and follow-up examinations was long due to a lack of hospital resources. Students and institute faculty met with hospital and government officials about the problem, which stimulated efforts to find funding and other resources that would eliminate the waiting list and make such screenings high-priority.

Being involved in such major social changes shows students how psychologists can make a real civic difference, says Gruba-McCallister.

"When you talk about social issues to anyone, invariably they are going to say, 'It's too big, too hard,'" he says. "We want to supply students with the type of experiences that allow them to see firsthand the kind of difference they can make."

Practice meets science

Fellow innovator UW--regularly ranked as one of the country's top scientific psychology departments--has retooled its training to merge research and clinical experiences. The change, says Ronald E. Smith, PhD, UW psychology professor and director of clinical psychology, has made students savvy clinical science and translational researchers and more competitive internship and job candidates.

For starters, faculty added a clinical case presentation requirement for fourth-year students. Each student selects a case from his or her clinical experience and presents a 30-minute talk to faculty and fellow students detailing the diagnosis, course of therapy, outcome and how research informed treatment every step of the way.

The department also purchased five personal digital assistants so students who work at UW's community-based training clinic can track clients' treatment progress and outcomes on a session-by-session basis. The information clients provide in the waiting room prior to their sessions informs the clinic's work and creates a data set students can tap for further research, says Smith.

Also new are specialized practica with UW clinical scientists who are involved in treatment development. Marsha Linehan, PhD, for example, conducts a treatment practicum on dialectical behavior therapy, which she developed to treat borderline personality disorder; Robert Kohlenberg, PhD, conducts one on his use of functional analytic psychotherapy, which he developed with UW colleague Mavis Tsai, PhD.

"Our students who go on to internship are seen as advanced both as scientists and clinicians, and in their ability to integrate the two," says Smith. "This really seems to be working, and our students have played a key role in every innovation."

Case in point: UW graduate student Erin C. Hunter is headed to her first-choice internship at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry next year and says UW's innovative training techniques gave her a leg up.

"It's easy to be strong in research or strong in clinical work; what's hard is to be strong in both," says Hunter.