October 27, 2015

SVSU research making Midland healthier, students smarter

Leaders in Midland County have always been serious about improving health outcomes for county residents. In 2014, they enlisted a serious research partner to better understand where they stand and what it would take to be a healthier county. The SVSU team of five faculty and 15 students — all undergraduates — spent nearly a year gathering, analyzing and sharing data. Those who selected SVSU for the project were seriously impressed when the team submitted its final report.

“We are extremely pleased with the quality of the work performed by SVSU students and faculty,” Sharon Mortensen, president and CEO of the Midland Area Community Foundation, said after the report was made available in May 2015. The foundation joined with the Health and Human Services Council of Midland County and other agencies on the study.

“The faculty team met numerous times with our small planning group. They adapted their work to the needs of our community and provided a finished product that will greatly benefit Midland County.”

Based on a successful prior study by SVSU — and an exemplary record of community engagement — the Midland County consortium approached the university to lead the research.

“We were very satisfied with the work SVSU did on the Midland County needs assessment and the corresponding Midland County Dashboard,” Mortensen said. “The responsiveness of the staff and faculty to our community needs has been outstanding. When it was time to again conduct the health survey, we thought this provided another great opportunity to work with our local university.”

“I’m well ahead of my peers”

While Midland County leaders are pleased with the final product, SVSU faculty and students are thrilled with the learning experience.

Nathan Peters, 2015, B.S., worked extensively on the research. County-wide health surveys are typically conducted by phone, but SVSU was committed to going into the community. The exercise science major from Deckerville was among those on the front lines asking people to complete surveys.

“It’s amazing to shake the hands of the people you know will benefit from what you’re doing,” he said. “Once families responded, that would make me even more proud, because not only are we trying to help the adult population, it’s really all about the children, how they’re raised and continuing those positive health behaviors.”

Peters has begun his graduate program at the University of South Carolina. He received a research and teaching assistantship (full tuition, plus stipend) and plans to complete his Ph.D. in exercise science there. His involvement on this study and other research projects has prepared him well for the demands of graduate school.

“Every conference I attend to present research,” he said, “I get asked, ‘Are you doing this for your dissertation?’ SVSU and our kinesiology department have given me every possible tool to be successful. I am very confident that I’m going to be well ahead of my peers.”

More work, more reward

Playing a role in stories such as Peters’ is why Josh Ode, 2001, B.A., professor of kinesiology at the time of the study, returned to his alma mater.

In July, Ode accepted an appointment to oversee SVSU’s community engagement activities as associate vice president for academic affairs. He noted that the team on the Midland study was interdisciplinary, and in his estimation, a prime example of community-based research.

“We said, ‘We can do this another way,’ and that’s exactly what we did. We included multiple students in a service-learning project to get data that was requested, and we personalized it for Midland. We asked the kind of questions — above the traditional survey that’s done on a regular basis — they wanted to know.”

The research process also included meetings every two weeks where students reflected upon what they had learned.

“That’s really what service-learning is,” Ode said. “You take what you learn in the classroom; put it into practice, and then you go further. You have students talk and reflect about what works and what doesn’t, identify the challenges, and determine how to move forward.”

Putting the research to work

Many of the students have completed their SVSU degrees and have started careers or graduate school. Faculty will evaluate their research work for scholarly publications and move on to other projects, but they remain in the Great Lakes Bay Region community. That should assist with an important next step: using the research to improve the health of Midland County’s people.

Leslie Perry, 2007, M.A., already has submitted grant proposals based on the study’s findings. More Midland-area physicians are writing prescriptions requiring patients to exercise, and she sees a need for these patients to have a dedicated liaison to keep them informed, encouraged and held accountable.

The study identified significant health differences among population groups. For example, 49 percent of respondents with a high school diploma engaged in no physical activity regularly; the same was true for just 11.6 percent of respondents with a bachelor’s degree.

As engagement director for Greater Midland, a non-profit group that includes popular facilities such as the Midland Community Center and Tennis Center, Perry wants to see more people take advantage of community assets — many of which are free of charge — for health and wellness.

“We have enough programs and resources, but not enough people are using them,” she said.

Lasting benefits

More recommendations and action items will be developed, and eventually a new health study will be needed, but bonds forged between professors and students will continue for many years to come.

Peters praised SVSU’s exercise science faculty, especially Becca Schlaaf, B.S., 2008, assistant professor of kinesiology, for how he was mentored.

“Faculty want students to be successful,” he said. They encourage students to get outside of the classroom and participate in these community-based research projects.

“You can’t get any closer with a faculty member than I have at SVSU. If I would have gone somewhere else, there is no way I could have had the experience I did. I would not be where I am today if I had gone anywhere besides SVSU, and I'm really confident in saying that.”