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Finding Solutions

Health-studies class examines local community needs

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

Health studies
Mary Buckley '10 (left) poses in the SAGE fitness center with Judie Brantner, the program's coordinator (right), and Professor David Sarcone. Buckley's research group recommended that SAGE program directors develop transitional programming to help ease inactive senior citizens into a fitness regimen at the center.

Imagine the frustration: Your community organization provides a new, well-equipped fitness center that could significantly improve the health and quality of life of residents in a local housing complex. But they won't use it.

It’s a familiar dilemma among health-care workers. And it offers a perfect educational opportunity for students in Dickinson’s health-studies-certificate program, as well as the chance to make a difference.

The Seniors Aging with Grace and Energy (SAGE) fitness program at Carlisle's One West Penn housing complex was one of three community-health programs examined by students as part of a health-studies-certificate course taught by David Sarcone, associate professor of international business & management. Last fall, the 14-week class took students out of the classroom and into the community, where they could research real issues in a real-life setting and propose workable solutions to the organizations.

“In my view, it’s almost like a graduate-level course. It sets a model that can be expanded on in graduate school and in the workplace and can give them an edge,” said Sarcone, who has more than two decades of experience in health-care management.

Field research across disciplines

Sarcone divided his class of 12 students into three groups. Then, with the aid of the Carlisle Area Health & Wellness Foundation, he connected each group with representatives from three local health-and-wellness programs overseen by the foundation: SAGE, the Carlisle YWCA’s New Shape of Fitness (NSOF) and the Carlisle Family YMCA’s Fit for Life. Each group of students then developed a research question, gathered and analyzed data and made recommendations to improve their assigned program’s services.

“These programs do a very nice job at measuring outcomes in the short term, but they don’t really have the resources to see if the education and behaviors are retained over time,” Sarcone explained. “This offers a good way to summarize a practical application of findings.”

It also offered students a crash course in flexible thinking, cross-disciplinary problem-solving and interpersonal skills.

Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the health-studies-certificate program, the class included majors in the sciences, social sciences and humanities. Students could offer views from an array of vantage points. But they also needed to learn to work with peers who may have had different research experiences. And the students who were comfortable gathering data in a controlled environment, such as a laboratory, quickly learned that they needed new adaptive measures and skills in the field.

Amy Conner ’10’s group, for example, researched the effects of the NSOF program, which provides an alternative to mainstream fitness regimens for overweight women who do not perform well in, or do not attend, traditional exercise classes. The group surveyed and interviewed class participants in addition to observing and participating in some sessions. “This class was so unique because we were working with an actual group in the Carlisle community,” said the biochemistry & molecular biology major.

As they looked into reasons why some community members did not adopt or maintain healthy habits, the students learned just how challenging fitness and health programming can be.

Surprising results

In the case of SAGE, which operates in conjunction with the Carlisle Family YMCA, students learned that many of the senior citizens undertook an orientation session at the fitness center when it opened in 2008. But despite incentives, promotional efforts and services offered by a nurse educator and trainer—and despite the fact that most residents admitted that they knew exercise might improve their health—they still did not maintain a fitness schedule. Through interviews and polls, students discovered that some seniors had had an unpleasant orientation experience. Others had been too intimidated, or too indifferent, to attend; some said that they would exercise on their doctors’ advice, however.

After gathering data such as this, the student groups analyzed and presented their findings and recommendations, both in class and to members of the organizations they’d studied.

“All involved in the project were surprised by some of the findings and learned some valuable information that can be used in planning for future changes in the programs,” said Judie Brantner, service coordinator for SAGE, who helped coordinate student observations, surveys and interview sessions.

Students likewise benefitted from the experience. As Conner points out, they feel good knowing that they’ve made a difference in the community—a difference that may have long-lasting effects in the lives of others. And, says biology major Mary Buckley ’10, who researched SAGE, the experience helped lay a foundation for a successful health-studies career path.

“I think that it is the ability to work effectively with other people that truly drives health studies and the progress of health initiatives,” said Buckley, who plans to research how to prevent the spread of disease in populations. “This class taught me how to learn about people in a firsthand setting. I absolutely think that this experience will help me in the future.”

Published February 23, 2010