Graduate Certification Program Targets Childhood Obesity

One-third of all children and adolescents in the United States are overweight or obese. In South Dakota, 32.5% of children aged 5 to 19 are overweight or obese. Among Native American children in the state, that number is 48.1%.

Combating this childhood obesity epidemic will require the skills of a wide range of experts, says South Dakota State University (SDSU) associate professor of health and nutritional sciences Jessica Meendering, PhD.

To accomplish this, Meendering and her team are collaborating with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to offer a Transdisciplinary Childhood Obesity Prevention graduate certificate program, referred to as TOP.

“Our goal is to have people think more broadly about obesity than nutrition and exercise,” says Meendering, who is SDSU’s principal investigator. The program brings together experts in a variety of disciplines, such as nutrition, exercise science, early childhood education, statistics, nursing, family development, and counseling.

Development of the TOP graduate certification program, which began in 2011, is supported by a five-year, $4.1 million grant from the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative. This is part of the USDA’s effort to prevent childhood obesity, educate youths about proper nutrition and connect experts and communities.

Meendering calls it, “bringing people together to work towards one common goal—to solve the problem.”

The program has three components: education, research and service, referred to as experiential learning. Graduate students must take at least nine credits of child obesity prevention coursework to qualify for the graduate certificate.

Faculty at the two universities work together to teach the classes, Meendering explains. SDSU leads the fall class, while University of Nebraska-Lincoln handles the spring course. The students meet face-to-face at each university and then the two groups interact using technology during the class. In addition to SDSU and UNL, students from the University of Nebraska-Kearny participate in TOP courses.

The most unique aspect of the program is the emphasis on learning through community engagement. That’s where SDSU Extension comes in, providing experiential learning opportunities through interactions among the students and community members.

“These students get a lot of real-world experience working in teams with people from other disciplines,” explains Meendering. And the TOP students agree that networking will help them in their careers.

“It’s all about marketability, anything that can increase your list of skills is always a plus,” says Emily Huber. For her thesis, Huber will determine whether participating in KidQuest, which promotes healthy food choices and exercise, has affected the physical activity levels of 400 fifth- and sixth-graders.

Source: South Dakota State University

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