HealthSLAM leaves healthy impression on elementary and medical students
Editor’s note: The Penn State College of Medicine Class of 2015 graduates this Sunday, May 17. This story highlights a program started by Christian McEvoy and Nicole Stevens, members of the Class of 2015.
Medical students often hope they grow into a physician who makes a difference.
Some start making that difference as soon as they enter medical school.
Penn State College of Medicine graduating medical student Christian McEvoy has left his mark on elementary health and nutrition education in Pennsylvania through a program he created called HealthSLAM.
HealthSLAM is designed to teach fourth and fifth grade students healthy eating habits at a time in their lives when they are learning to think for themselves.
McEvoy said fourth and fifth grade are also the years when children seem to begin development of what will become their adult habits.
“It’s a time in which some children are starting to have buying power in their family unit, so they are going to the grocery store with mom and dad or whoever’s taking caring of them and they are able to say ‘I would like that, I don’t want that,'” McEvoy said.
McEvoy started the program about three years ago when awarded the Department of Humanities Clouser Award, which provides $1,500 in funding for innovative projects. His idea was to revamp an existing program.
He recruited now fourth-year medical student Nicole Stevens, along with other members of his class, to create the content and deliver the message of healthy eating by engaging elementary students through cutting edge teaching techniques and use of technology.
“We worked together to construct something truly awesome and innovative in the service of our community, ” McEvoy said.
The HealthSLAM experience starts with an introductory video to gives students an idea of what’s to come.
The video features a student named Alex who makes poor food choices like energy drinks and toaster pastries and the results of those decisions that follow him through his day. After an educational intervention from the HealthSLAM medical students, Alex makes better choices like oatmeal and fruit, creating better results.
The video explains how to read a food label and determine food portions, and introduces a stop light as a guide to how often students should eat certain types of food. The subsequent classroom visits by the Penn State Hershey students build on that information through fun and entertaining interaction.
“Play is a really unique way to teach information, and I think kids remember things better when they’re interacting with the material and really engaging with it,” Stevens said.
One of the reasons McEvoy saw the need for the program was Pennsylvania’s lack of mandated nutrition curriculum. Obesity rates are another.
“Obesity is a rising epidemic, particularly in pediatric patients,” said Stevens. “I think that you have to teach kids early to create healthy eating habits, and this program is a fun interactive way to do that.”
Her hope is that the students take away enough information to apply to their eating habits that it keeps them healthy and active.
Darci Fink, a fourth grade teacher at Ebenezer Elementary in the Cornwall-Lebanon School District, agrees that HealthSLAM is an important tool in fighting skyrocketing obesity rates.
Obesity is an issue in her school and among her students many of whom come from low income homes.
“Some of the education they received through HealthSLAM was truly the first time that they’ve ever heard these things,” Fink said.
Fink appreciates the material being put in a format that keeps students engaged. “The video that they show to kick it off is funny to the students, and I think it’s surprising when they start to think about what they eat on a regular basis compared to what’s healthy,” she said.
“The kids are always very excited about it, interested in it and really think about the foods that they’re eating.”
Faculty advisor Dr. Marsha Novick, assistant professor of pediatrics and family and community medicine, whose own children have experienced HealthSLAM, believes both the elementary and medical students benefit from the program.
“For medical students who spend a lot of time in the classroom, it’s is a fantastic opportunity for them to be able to get out into the community to get a taste of what it’s like to educate people about medicine,” she said.
Her children shared that it was a lot of fun and that they liked that a video went along with the session and had a hands on part as well.
“They learned about different groups of food and how to read a label. Even though they know a lot about nutrition they don’t really know the ins and outs of label-reading. Therefore they were able to learn and build upon what they already know,” Novick said. “HealthSLAM has been a program that is really a win-win for everybody.”
McEvoy said that for the Penn State Hershey students, the program combines elements of research, service, medicine, public health, cutting-edge educational techniques and invaluable experiences that they would not otherwise find in a classroom. Stevens agreed it’s a great way to get involved in the community.
“A lot of the time, we’re stuck in our hospital world or our classroom walls, and this is a great chance to do some outreach,” Stevens said. “We really talk to kids and find out what they’re interested in and passionate about.”
Novick believes it is a program all specialties can learn from, not just future pediatricians.
“Every single organ system of the body is affected by obesity. If you’re a cardiologist, you need to be able to train your patients about a healthy lifestyle in order to reduce their cholesterol and blood pressure–all through exercise and good dietary habits,” she said. “It is so important for our youth to be educated about good nutrition so that they can make healthy choices.”
The medical students administered pre- and post-tests to the children that prove that the children are learning the information.
“We can’t say for sure it’s changing their eating habits, but they at least understand the information,” Stevens said.
The first year of the program, the medical students visited 12 schools and reached more than 2,000 children. They have been invited back to those schools each year since and have added more to their list. This year, they have been in 20 schools and more than 150 classrooms, reaching over 3,000 elementary students.
HealthSLAM was recently accepted for publication in the internationally focused Health Education Journal because the editors believed it is an important and promising model that warranted sharing with the academic and public health communities.
Already, as McEvoy hoped, HealthSLAM has been adopted by other medical schools since its inception.
“We’ve encouraged folks at other medical schools to do this. We wanted people to take the program and adapt it to what makes sense in their area,” he said.
For information on how to get HealthSLAM in your classroom, visit http://www.healthslam.org.
For more information on healthy eating, visit http://www.choosemyplate.gov.
- Jade Kelly Solovey