CSU students helping create healthier K-12 school environments

College students observe children in a classroom

CSU Ph.D. student Charlotte McKernan, back left, and University of Northern Colorado master’s student Mike Capps, back right, monitor the physical activity of students at Tozer Elementary in Windsor on April 19. Photo by Rob Trubia/University of Northern Colorado

Colorado State University graduate students are involved in a new project to create healthier environments in K-12 schools, and they’re starting with a pilot project in Colorado schools designed to give students more physical activity in class.

CSU Ph.D. student Charles Heidrick, right, and UNC Ph.D. student Ann Kuhn track students’ movement at Tozer last month.

Nathaniel Riggs, an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS), and Melissa George, a research scientist in the Prevention Research Center, are leading CSU’s role in the effort, which is funded by a two-year, $827,000 grant from the Colorado Health Foundation.

The project is called “Advancing Innovation and Dissemination of Evidence-Based Action in Schools (IDEAS) for Health.” It was inspired by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Whole Community, Whole School, Whole Child” model, a 10-component approach that emphasizes partnering with the community and parents on everything from the physical environment in schools to students’ mental health to schools’ social-emotional climate.

In total, four CSU researchers, Riggs, George, Prevention Research Center Director Doug Coatsworth and Daniel Graham, an assistant professor of psychology, are taking the primary role in running an “Innovation Lab” with the help of four CSU graduate research assistants funded by the grant. In the lab, Colorado schools and school districts will be able to test new approaches or overcome barriers to school-based health and wellness promotion.

College students take notes as children follow their instructor in putting their hands on their head in a classroom

Identifying, testing innovations

Initially, educators spend a half- to a full-day in an “Innovation Generation Retreat” with a CSU team led by Research Associate Rebecca Toll and HDFS graduate students Shelly Annameier and Hope Cornelis, to identify innovative strategies for overcoming barriers to effective school-based health and wellness programs. Then they participate in an “Innovation Testing Ground” to assess the innovative strategies using sound research designs. The Colorado Health Foundation has committed 10 years of funding to creating healthy schools across Colorado.

“So by year 10, hopefully what we have is a sustainable innovation lab with a statewide footprint,” Riggs said. “The idea is to address comprehensive health in schools. We’ll be able to create lasting effects in the system, which is pretty cool.”

“We don’t want to develop something that just sits on the shelf,” George added. “We want something that will be used.”

Their first project involves assessing the effectiveness of a pilot program started by the Red Hawk Foundation and Cyrus Weinberger, the principal at Red Hawk Elementary School in Erie. The pilot involves an online teacher training program designed to incorporate more physical activity in class.

Student involvement

Charles Heidrick, a Ph.D. student in CSU’s Department of Psychology, and Charlotte McKernan, a Ph.D. student in Human Development and Family Studies, have been trained on an observation protocol by Russell Carson, an associate professor in the University of Northern Colorado School of Sport and Exercise Science and principal investigator of a complementary two-year project funded by the Colorado Health Foundation. (Carson, Graham and Riggs are all faculty in the Colorado School of Public Health, a partnership among CSU, the University of Colorado and UNC.)

The two CSU students are visiting Colorado elementary schools where the pilot is being implemented, to observe and record the physical activity of the school children (who wear activity trackers to monitor their exercise levels) as well as how often the teachers implement physical activity into lessons during the school day.

“The most rewarding aspect is being on the ground where we’re interested in having an impact,” Heidrick said. “We’re actually on the front lines to see if what we’re learning is working, to see if it translates practically in schools. We’re able to see whether it’s having an effect, not just discussing it in our own bubble of academia.”

Heidrick added that up to this point, his research has been focused on promoting physical activity among adults, so the experience in schools has expanded his view of possible career options.

“This is broadening my horizons on the populations I could work with,” he said.

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Other projects

Two projects are on the horizon for the CSU team this spring. The first is to help five Alamosa schools’ effort to get kids to eat healthier, using a Project Produce grant from the Chef Ann Foundation and members of the community who have nutrition resources, such as local farmers. The second is to test an innovative social-emotional learning and mindfulness approach to restorative justice for adolescents who have been expelled from Primero School District schools in Weston, Colorado.

The Innovation Lab is part of the larger IDEAS initiative, which involves faculty and graduate students from UNC, University of Denver, Children’s Hospital and the Rocky Mountain Prevention Research Center of the Colorado School of Public Health at CU Anschutz. That center has been working with K-12 schools across Colorado for many years on projects to increase students’ opportunities for healthy eating and physical activity, particularly in the San Luis Valley and Denver metro area.

Two other IDEAS aims include creating menus of best practices for schools to adopt, such as providing healthy options in vending machines, as well as understanding how districts and schools plan to create healthier environments for students.

George said the IDEAS project is a great fit for the service and outreach elements of CSU’s land-grant mission because it involves taking university expertise out to K-12 schools, and it could become an approach emulated around the country.

“Colorado is one of the nation’s leaders in using this statewide collaborative approach to implement comprehensive school health and wellness strategies,” she said. “We have an opportunity to be an example for other states.”

“And our graduate students play a critical role in moving this work forward,” Riggs added.

The Department of Human Development and Family Studies is in CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.