Nutritional sciences class reaches younger audience with educational event

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Students in the Department of Nutritional Sciences want to challenge young minds to think about the food they eat, where it comes from, and how it impacts their health.

That was their mission this fall as part of their required fieldwork in NUTR 456 Community Nutrition taught by Jennifer Savage Williams, assistant professor in the department, and interim director at the Center for Childhood Obesity Research.

For the fieldwork experience, students presented 12 interactive learning booths on topics in nutrition, health, physical activity and wellness to about 55 students in kindergarten through fourth grade as part of a community nutrition education event.

The event was held in November at Ferguson Township Elementary School during its Community Education Extended Learning (CEEL) after school program in partnership with the State College Area School District (SCASD).

“To really understand community nutrition you have to get out of the classroom and into the community,” said Katie McNitt, registered dietitian at the Center for Childhood Obesity Research. “It’s really crucial for students to get out there and interact with real people, because that’s part of what their career will entail, regardless of the field they go into. Many students in this course go on to become registered dietitians, or work in community nutrition, such as food banks or in the health care industry.”

Student at booth

A student at Ferguson Township Elementary School explores soil for planting seeds at an interactive booth during a community nutrition education event. The event was hosted by students in the Department of Nutritional Sciences as part of their fieldwork. 

Image: Marjorie S. Miller

The students spent months preparing for the event.

First they came up with educational themes for their interactive booths, and then proposed them to instructors in the department. The themes were then created into lesson plans, which were tested on CEEL directors and SCASD educators, including Lindsay Younkins, CEEL site supervisor at Ferguson Township Elementary School, and Heidi Rhoades, secretary for SCASD community education. Younkins and Rhoades were instrumental in the planning and execution of the event, Savage Williams said.

Students also practiced their presentations in class — and provided feedback on their peers’ presentations — before they were implemented as part of the community education event.

“As students get ready to graduate they have these lesson plans from the event, which helps set them apart from others applying to dietetic or other programs after college,” said Savage Williams.

For the class, nutritional sciences senior Tinatini Giutashvili and her group members created the MyPlate Fun Run, a game based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s educational diagram that shows ideal portion sizes of food groups.

“MyPlate has five categories, and for children it can be confusing to figure out where a food like pizza would fit,” Giutashvili said. “That's where we come in to help the students figure it out. Ultimately, we want the kids to feel empowered to make mindful decisions about the foods they eat, so this event is a big step toward that.”

For the MyPlate game, the children were divided into two teams. Using pictures of food, the teams raced against each other to attach the foods to the correct food group on the “MyPlate” display.

“We made the game challenging for the older kids by throwing in food they might not conventionally see, for example quinoa,” Giutashvili said, which would fit into the grain category.

“Right now school-aged children are bombarded with nutrition messages to the point that they become desensitized and may not pay attention anymore,” she said. “However, it's still important to get those messages out to the kids.”

MyPlate Fun Run

The "MyPlate" Fun Run was one of the interactive booths at the event. For the game, children were divided into two teams and raced against each other to attach foods to their correct food group. "MyPlate" is a diagram created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to showcase ideal portion sizes of food groups.

Image: Marjorie S. Miller

Another senior nutritional sciences student, Skyler Amrhein, said his group’s booth, “The Price is Right,” displayed different food items typically eaten for lunch, and the cost of each item. The purpose was to show that not every food item is priced equally, and consumers must make decisions when shopping.

“It’s important for the students to understand where their food is coming from, and why some food is more expensive than others,” Amrhein said. “The next time they go shopping with their parents or caregivers maybe they will learn something new or pay closer attention to what goes in the cart.”

This is the second year students have hosted a community nutrition event at the elementary school.

Last year, students hosted an event in conjunction with Earth Day. For the event, students presented a variety of booths on nutrition and health. The event resulted in the planting of a community garden at the school.

“The Earth Day event was so popular. Students couldn’t stop talking about it and the feedback was outstanding,” Savage Williams said. “We wanted to do something again this year. This community nutrition education program fits the mission of the University for students to get hands-on experience and interact with the community, as well as share what they learn in the classroom with the community.”

While the event helps nutritional sciences students get out-of-classroom experience, it’s also beneficial for the elementary school children, as they receive education about nutrition they might not receive at home or during regular school hours.

“Nutrition education curriculum has come a long way,” McNitt said. “But there are still some gaps in education and awareness about nutrition. We’re trying to fill those gaps with this program.”

Coordinating the event also provides Penn State students with opportunities to practice real-life skills, such as budgeting, time management, resource management and interpersonal skills, Savage Williams said.

“I’m proud of my students,” Savage Williams said. “We give them the skill set, and to see them actually apply it, that’s what education is all about.”

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Last Updated December 14, 2016