University Students Guide Local Schools on Health and Wellness - Jun 18, 2013 - Center for Academic Service-Learning - UW-Superior News and Events

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Center for Academic Service - Learning

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University Students Guide Local Schools on Health and Wellness

Posted on Jun 18, 2013
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Fifth graders graders participate in track and field events at the annual Track-o-rama. The School District of Superior already offers many opportunities and events for students to build healthy living habits. The Community and School Wellness Policy Collaborative Learning Pilot will give them the chance to expand their efforts through education, support and funding.

Fifth graders graders participate in track and field events at the annual Track-o-rama. The School District of Superior already offers many opportunities and events for students to build healthy living habits. The Community and School Wellness Policy Collaborative Learning Pilot will give them the chance to expand their efforts through education, support and funding.

Nearly one-third of children in this country are obese.  Not surprisingly, efforts to address childhood obesity are on the rise. One sector that has been paying more attention is schools. Throughout the U.S. schools have been paying more attention to their students' health, understanding that a healthy school environment means better grades, behavior, and the building blocks for healthy habits.  Like many school districts across the country, the Superior School District has been taking a bigger role in creating a supportive school environment that fosters health.

The School District of Superior was selected as one of five school districts in Wisconsin to be part of a test program, the Community & Schools Wellness Policy Learning Collaborative Pilot (CSWPLC). The program will begin with three "test", or pilot schools in Superior: Northern Lights Elementary, Great Lakes Elementary, and Superior High School. The long-term goal is to find out what strategies to increase physical activity and improve nutrition work well and to eventually disseminate the new strategies to other schools in the district or even the county. As part of the pilot program, each district forms a Learning Collaborative team. The School District of Superior team is comprised of teachers, administration, and a community coalition, the Healthier Douglas County Coalition (HDCC). This team will attend trainings and conferences, gain access to webinars/conference calls related to health, be provided support through site visits, and receive a stipend for implementing new strategies to improve student health this upcoming fall.

A Community Need

Douglas County ranks low in many areas of health. When specifically focusing on health behaviors (e.g. adult obesity, physical inactivity), Douglas County ranks 63 out of 72 counties in Wisconsin. Most concerning is that 36% of children are overweight or obese, compared to 31% statewide*. Over the years, student health has been voiced as an area of interest by both school staff and community agencies that work with children and families. Now there is the opportunity to implement promising changes.

This pilot gave Superior the starting momentum it needed to think about changes it will implement in the upcoming school year. Superior's Learning Collaborative Team members knew how much work needs to be done. The busy schedules of teachers and coalition members meant that they were not able to extensively look into background research to guide their upcoming decisions. They needed a comprehensive collection of research on various strategies to improve health of students in schools.  

UW-Superior Students Filled in Gaps with Academic Service-Learning

This is where the University of Wisconsin-Superior stepped in. This past semester, Anatomy and Physiology students at UW-Superior searched coast to coast for ideas to improve school wellness. The information that students collected will be used by the Learning Collaborative team to make planning and implementation decisions at the three schools.

Dr. Michelle Arnhold, Assistant Professor of UW-Superior's Natural Sciences Department understands that there are often time constraints and resource needs in the community. She has worked to bring university resources to the Superior community through Academic Service-Learning (AS-L). AS-L is a teaching pedagogy that integrates meaningful community service into curriculum. Faculty members work closely with a community partner in order to fulfill a community need while enhancing students' learning experience through real-world issues.

This past spring semester, her Anatomy and Physiology students each interviewed school leaders around the country about what they are doing in the school to promote health and wellness.  They wrote papers to highlight school "success stories" around physical activity and nutrition.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has shared stories of "success" as a model for school districts.  Many of these schools have been deemed "success stories," featured in new articles or documentaries.  Arnhold's students took special note of challenges schools face, specific details of success, and creative solutions.

Students Gain Opportunity to Apply Knowledge in the Community

The assignment is a reflection of one of the greatest benefits of AS-L: a "win-win" situation for both the class and the community partner. They provided important information for the Learning Collaborative team, while gaining valuable knowledge and skills through interviewing schools.

A common theme among students' interviews was that in the real-world, unanticipated challenges may arise.  "The way life works cannot be taught in a classroom. For example, a nutritionist may know all there is to know about children's health, but working with the people and the systems and the politics to actually implement proper health and wellness plans is a whole other element" says Laura Bonsell, a senior majoring in Biology. She interviewed a school in Texas that started off with great success and even starred in a documentary. Over time, however, the school discovered several challenges. As an aspiring physical therapist, Bonsell believes that this experience has given her the communication and problem solving skills to prepare her for the professional world.

Katelyn Adams, a junior majoring in Biology, notes that this assignment helped her realize that small changes helped not just the students in school, but employees as well. It also gave her practice in interviewing people. "This is a useful skill that I will use in other classes and throughout my profession later in life," said Adams.

The interview assignment helped Whitney Brugman, a junior Exercise Science major, realize how important it is to learn about and teach physical activity and nutrition early on, rather than focusing on improving habits in adults. "Once someone gets in a bad habit they are stuck, and it is extremely hard to change that. When I was in grade school we weren't taught nearly as much about nutrition as students these days are and I think it is very beneficial for students to learn about it at a young age," described Brugman.

Papers Give "Preview" of Success and Struggles

The interview papers will provide valuable information for the Learning Collaborative team. Knowing what others schools are doing, along with successes and challenges the schools are facing, will give the team the background information necessary to make informed decisions. It gives them realistic goals. Oftentimes, success stories do not show the bumps along the way.

"Sometimes all we hear is the success stories…we might feel we are far behind everyone else. These papers gave a great example of positive changes that are taking place and the struggles that some school districts are having and why," said Mary Mahan, a core council member of HDCC.

Mahan went on to state that these papers will help them prepare and plan their strategies for what they may encounter down the road.  "I think that we can utilize aspects of what worked and what didn't work in our own school environments here in Douglas County," said Mahan.

Promoting Healthy Habits in the Future

The opportunity for Superior schools to be part of this learning pilot will be an instrumental part in giving community leaders the tools to promote healthy habits. With the rising concern about childhood obesity, addressing the issue from a preventative standpoint seems to be a growing approach. The long-term hope of the Learning Collaborative team is that these strategies will help prevent many diseases and health concerns associated with poor nutrition and lack of adequate physical activity such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

UW-Superior students played an important part in providing background knowledge to give the Learning Collaborative Team a head start. "Partnering with AS-L has been beneficial…it gives us insight in moving forward in our own community," said Mahan.


Academic Service-Learning (AS-L) is a form of experiential learning that encourages university-community partnerships. AS-L  gives students an opportunity to learn course objectives through related, meaningful community service. The Center for Academic Service-Learning works to ensure partnerships are mutually beneficial for service-learners and the community sites served.

News Contact: Sandy Liang | 715-394-8377 | sliang{atuws}
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