Medical student Christopher Hughes stood in front of a large poster Monday, practicing his spiel on curious conference-goers before he gave the speech that really counted - the one to the faculty judges who graded his work.

Hughes was one of 61 students from the University of Minnesota Medical School's Duluth campus who observed health care providers and practices in rural communities this spring, with the goal of understanding the challenges and successes in those communities.

The students presented their research - including posters summarizing the findings - on Monday night to UMD faculty members and attendees at the Minnesota Rural Health Conference at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. The conference, which opened Monday and continues today, is focused on the topic, "Cultivating Resilient Communities."

Hughes analyzed the staff wellness program in Montevideo Public Schools in southern Minnesota. He looked at how the school district provides its faculty ways to be healthy at work - including yoga, chair massages and a stand-up desk that rotates among faculty members.

Hughes said he liked focusing on faculty health because people often forget how important wellness programs are for teachers, too. He said he used to tutor fourth-grade students and understands how taxing teaching can be.

"Trying to teach them long division, even for an hour - I came out feeling like I need to get this stress out," Hughes said.

Dr. Ray Christensen, associate dean for rural health at the medical school, said the project aims to give first-year students a chance to observe and converse with community leaders, community members and physicians in rural areas. The goal is for students to critically look at how a rural community addresses primary health concerns, he said.

"They love going out," Christensen said of the students visiting clinics. "It reminds them why they're in medical school."

Student Ilexa Flagstad spent five days with a physician in Albany, Minn. One of Albany's primary health concerns for both adults and children is depression.

"Having mental health services in a rural community is very difficult," Flagstad said.

She found that as a way to combat that issue, the community raised money for a fitness center.

Flagstad said Albany's hospital recently closed, with an outpatient clinic being transferred to a new company. That raised issues during patient visits.

"It's been very interesting to watch the community deal with that," she said.

Flagstad said she learned a lot by observing physicians and patients discuss the changes during visits. Flagstad said some patients had trouble adjusting to the change. The physicians who tried to view the change as an opportunity to provide the community with new health-care options generally had more productive patient visits, Flagstad said.

Alena Tofte analyzed maternal and child health services at Memorial Medical Center in Ashland. Ashland is located near two reservations - Bad River and Red Cliff - which each have a clinic but not a hospital. Her project, she said, examined how Ashland's hospital caters to the Native American communities' needs.

Tofte said the hospital's care is designed for a general population, which can create barriers for Native American women seeking prenatal care. Some women, she said, came in with no immunizations or screenings. She said she looked at the available programs for those women and sought to better understand how the hospital provided services to the Native American community.

Hughes said the poster project forced him and his classmates to ask themselves what each rural community is doing right or wrong in health care. He said his research altered his idea of what health and wellness looks like.

"Health doesn't have to be going to the gym," Hughes said. "It can ... be showing up to work and participating in your work program."