Academic journal article American Journal of Health Education

College Teaching and Community Outreaching: Service Learning in an Obesity Prevention Program

Academic journal article American Journal of Health Education

College Teaching and Community Outreaching: Service Learning in an Obesity Prevention Program

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Background: Service learning can enrich students' knowledge, skills and commitment to occupational goals while positively affecting communities. Undergraduate students in a course on obesity engaged in service learning by assisting with a family-based obesity prevention program, Getting Into Fitness Together (GIFT). Purpose: The impact of GIFT on students and family participants was evaluated. Methods: Students (N = 33) completed surveys assessing their perceptions of the course and its service learning component. Eighteen of 21 families who participated in GIFT completed questionnaires and interviews about their experience nearly six months after the program ended. Results: Students evaluated both the course and service learning very favorably; a consistent theme was that the opportunity to apply classroom learning to a real-world experience was invaluable. GIFT participants described strong satisfaction with the program (retention rate = 90%), and most (89%) reported tangible behavioral changes in physical activity or eating patterns. Discussion: Service learning in obesity prevention offered benefits for college students and participants. Especially notable aspects of the program include its emphases on full-family involvement, physical activity and family mentoring. Translation to Health Education Practice: Service learning may offer an especially influential means of introducing future health educators to the critically important topic of obesity.

Am J Health Educ. 2010;41(6):368-378. This paper was submitted to the Journal on June 4, 2009, revised and accepted for publication on August 18, 2009.

BACKGROUND

Service learning, a method of experiential education that blends purposeful community service with related academic learning, benefits both students and communities. On college campuses, service learning has been found to positively affect students' personal and interpersonal development, improve academic learning and application skills and increase future commitment to service. (1) For communities, students have proven to be a valuable resource, engaging in projects that otherwise may not take place; in monetary terms, the value of U.S. college student ser vice in 2007 has been estimated to be nearly seven billion dollars. (2)

Service learning can play an especially important role in the education of health professionals, who are in need of training experiences in community-based settings to develop the broad range of skills required by modern health careers. (3) Hodges and Videto (4) described the importance of service learning in a master's level health education curriculum, where embedding it in multiple courses helped students gain the competencies necessary to be effective practitioners, while deepening their professional commitment. In clinical careers, the opportunity to work with future clients or patients can enhance interpersonal skills and improve cultural competency. For example, nursing students who participated in a service project helping low-income pregnant teenagers transition to parenthood emerged with greater understanding of the barriers facing people from underserved communities and increased comfort and ability working with diverse individuals. (5)

Undergraduates majoring in health-related fields also gain from service learning opportunities. Students in health and elementary education degree programs who presented health lessons to children in inner-city elementary schools described the experience as "one of the most difficult and meaningful" (6(p.238) of their college careers. Though apprehensive beforehand, students appreciated the chance to apply what they had learned and to develop such skills as classroom management, collaboration and using state education standards. Similarly, undergraduates from a variety of fields who participated in a service learning nutrition education program made stronger connections between their course work and applied experience. …

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