Exercise Science Students Reach Out By Reaching In
There’s nothing quite like a hands-on learning experience to demonstrate to students the challenges – and joys – that await them after graduation. That future looks very exciting for Sacred Heart University students in Dr. Valerie Wherley’s Pediatric Exercise Science class (EX 320), who recently completed a field service learning project at the Cooperative Educational Services (CES) School in Trumbull.
Wherley is clinical assistant professor and clinical education coordinator for the Exercise Science program at Sacred Heart. Students in her Exercise Science class coordinate and conduct a physical activity “field day” at CES, which serves youth from middle school to high school who are clinically diagnosed on the autistic spectrum, as well as challenged with intellectual or emotional disabilities.
The field day, which is conducted in the school’s gymnasium, includes many different activities targeting the students’ physical abilities, such as agility, flexibility, hand-eye coordination and strength. The event was led by two members of the Thomas More School of Honors, Sarah Burkart and Stephanie Walters, who worked with Kevin McGlone, CES’ adaptive physical education teacher.
“The Exercise Science Department has been working collaboratively with CES for close to a decade and provides a wonderful opportunity for undergraduate students to participate in comprehensive, hands-on service learning,” said Wherley. “This particular program is truly special, as our students receive – and provide – the gift of implementing physical activity for kids on the autism spectrum. Our undergraduates coordinate this effort, get fellow students involved and then implement the program. It’s typically an excellent experience, gives back to the community and offers exceptional learning for everyone involved.”
One of the two student coordinators, Stephanie Walters, says she’s always enjoyed working with children, found the project very exciting and anticipates continuing down that career path.
“For Dr. Wherley’s class, we need to complete 20 hours of field work/service learning over the course of the semester,” Walters explained. “I chose CES because it offered a very different experience from working with a gym class at a typical elementary school. Kevin is an excellent teacher and allows the SHU students to take a very hands-on approach to our service learning. I worked with many of the students, helped them participate in gym during the semester and then we incorporated many of these activities into the field day.”
Walters, who plans to pursue post-graduate studies and earn a doctorate in physical therapy, was happy with the day’s success. “All of the CES students who participated really enjoyed themselves. It was awesome to put a smile on their faces,” she said. “Working with Sarah (Burkart) to organize the field day, I learned to appreciate every small success. Even if a particular student had trouble and needed to modify an activity to complete it, that they were able to accomplish it is a success in itself.”
Burkart echoed those sentiments. Her mom, she said, has been working with autistic children for many years, and Burkart has visited her at school since she was 12. Seeing the excitement on kids’ faces on field day was an incredible feeling. “These weren’t the activities they typically do during physical education class,” noted Burkart, who hopes to pursue a graduate degree in either physical therapy or occupational therapy after she completes her degree in Exercise Science at Sacred Heart. “They usually practice the same activity for weeks, but on field day they got to go through six different stations. It was so cool to see them not only enjoying the exercises, but also cheering for their classmates. It’s a great chance for us to teach these students with disabilities about physical activity and motor skills, but I feel like they teach me more than I could ever do for them. It is so easy to get involved and is such a rewarding feeling at the end of the day.”
According to McGlone, who’s been coordinating the CES field days for eight years, the Exercise Science students visit CES once a week for their service learning, and it’s a great experience and working relationship for everyone. “The CES population enjoys this interaction with the Sacred Hearts students and reacts very positively to the overall support and the field day experience,” McGlone said. “Group activities like these can be very challenging, and our students truly benefit from interacting, modeling behaviors, one-on-one time and this entire partnership. Under Professor Wherley’s guidance, the Sacred Heart students who visit us every semester are active, energetic and capable facilitators. This program gives them valuable learning that will help them in their careers and they can bring back to their classrooms. The only problem is that our kids really miss them when they’re gone.”