In its first year, Longwood University's graduate program in health and physical education in the Department of Health, Athletic Training, Recreation and Kinesiology, allows licensed health and physical education teachers to attend Longwood for one year to earn their master's degrees.
The program got a boost from new faculty member Claire Mowling, a native of Great Britain, who came to the United States on a tennis scholarship and never left. She earned her doctorate in physical education pedagogy from Auburn University, enjoying academic stints in Georgia and London before landing the job at Longwood.
Mowling's first assignment was to teach the graduate-level course Developing Leadership Skills to the program's first cohort of eight students. She could have designed a syllabus that relied on weighty reading and long lectures, but she's a big believer that students learn best by doing and, particularly, by coming up with their own solutions to problems.
Lucky for Mowling, the department had a hula hoop problem.
The department's undergraduate honor fraternity, Phi Epsilon Kappa, had worked alongside Professor Vonnie Colvin to raise $300 for the purchase of 180 hula hoops and 180 pool noodles for Prince Edward County's Head Start program, in conjunction with the National Association for Sport and Physical Education's Head Start/Body Start initiative.
The equipment can be used for a variety of physical fitness activities and it's particularly beneficial when teachers have been trained to integrate it effectively into their lessons. Colvin, Mowling and their students offered teachers an in-service training on how to use the new noodles and hula hoops, but it was clear they needed more support.
Mowling left the training session inspired.
"We'd promised the teachers some training materials and a DVD documenting the activities they could do with their children," Mowling said. "It occurred to me that this was the perfect project for the graduate class I was going to teach. I wanted them to do something they were passionate about."
What began as a plan to create a DVD quickly became a syllabus packed with ways Mowling's eight students would help Head Start teachers implement the hula hoop and pool noodle exercise program. To supplement the DVD, the students decided to create a children's activity book and activity cards.
Jen Marshall graduated from Longwood in 2012 with a major in health and physical education and decided to stay in Farmville one more year to take advantage of the new master's program. Marshall was the student responsible for handling communications for the class. For her, the challenge was in the preparation.
"In this class, if you don't do the homework, it affects other people and impacts timelines," she said. "When it was my turn to lead the project, I had to prepare for class, lead the discussion and assign tasks to my classmates. It pushed me out of my comfort zone."
Mowling's main goal for the class is for her students to know how to make an impact in the real world.
"These students are already licensed teachers," she said. "They have a good knowledge of how to teach. This class is taking it further and helping them become agents for change."