Feb. 17, 2010
CONTACT: Gordon Ovenshine:
Students improve lives with 'I Can Do It' research
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - More than 40 Slippery Rock University students are involved as participants in a research study to better understand the effectiveness of the federal "I Can Do It, You Can Do It" mentoring program that partners students with community individuals with disabilities for weekly physical activity sessions. SRU, a national role model for the program, helped the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services expand the program to eight other sites around the country.
SRU students are researching what level of mentor expertise best motivates clients and leads to the greatest improvement in health outcomes, said Betsy Kemeny, SRU instructor of physical education and coordinator of SRU's I Can Do It program.
The research will be helpful in planning the most cost-effective model, she said. Students are researching whether less experienced volunteers could help some clients, thus expanding opportunities for mentoring, or would mentees always need a mentor with a graduate degree or specialized certification. The goal is to find the most cost-efficient model for mentoring that does not jeopardize successful outcomes.
"In the research conducted on mentoring to date, there is really is no clear indication of what level of mentor expertise is necessary to motivate the desired health outcome," Kemeny said. "There is a great need for better evidence about the model's effectiveness prior to further expansion."
Each of the 45 students, including 15 in SRU's adapted physical activity graduate program, meet with their clients once a week at the Butler or Grove City YMCA or SRU's Robert N. Aebersold Student Recreation Center. At the beginning of the semester, the student research team, comprised of four graduate students and two undergraduates, assessed the client's level of physical fitness, body mass index and nutritional habits. At the end of their eight-week projects, students will re-assess the mentees and compare the results to determine outcomes.
Students will learn proper research methodology, gain career experience and receive an opportunity to present at a conference. Clients will benefit in many ways. Students are developing significant relationships with their mentee and also coaching them about diet and lifestyle to move them toward growth and greater independence. Many of the mentees have an intellectual disability.
"We're trying to instill behavioral changes so that mentees live more active and healthy lives," Kemeny said. "I am also measuring differences in our mentors to get a better idea about what they learn and their knowledge and skills. One of the things I keep hearing from students is that the experience makes them feel more comfortable working with someone who has a disability. After they graduate, they will leave here and go into society with skills and attitudes that support individuals with disabilities, whatever their job is."
Ben Arnhold, a therapeutic recreation major from Volant, said he is inputting effectiveness data from the eight other I Can Do It program sites, which will help the researchers evaluate the program. Locally, he leads activity sessions with a 9-year-old boy who has an intellectual disability.
"To start the typical day, we usually walk around the track, taking a couple of laps," he said. "Then we do some basic stretching exercises, because the assessment indicated we needed to increase his flexibility. I am trying to get him to play new sports. We've been playing a lot of racquetball, because he mentioned that he would be interested in learning the sport."
Arnhold said his client is showing a greater interest in being active. "He's just really excited to be there," he said.
Arnhold's foray into the adapted field was an obvious one. He is the son of Robert and Pam Arnhold, SRU professors of physical education and program leaders.
"I have been around people with disabilities forever," Ben Arnhold said. "It's something that comes naturally to me. I like interacting with them."
SRU's student mentors fall into three categories for the purpose of the research - upperclassmen in the adapted physical activity minor; undergraduates with no adapted physical activity experience; and graduate students who are certified physical education teachers, therapeutic recreation specialists, or certified personal trainers, Kemeny said.
Each mentor received the same support materials, such as nutritional brochures and physical activity logs. Each mentor spends the same amount of time with a client and offers the same incentives, such as T-shirts and water bottles.
Researchers were cross-trained in accurate data collection measures, and each student researcher was tested to determine their accurate understanding of data collection procedures, Kemeny said. Analysis will focus on the outcome differences between the three groups of mentors and mentees.
"Through this pilot study, students and faculty will learn about the specific nature of mentoring and its potential impact for children and youth with disabilities," she said. "We're going to compare the post-assessment with the pre-assessment for information primarily regarding the qualifications and training of mentors required to gain beneficial results."
Shardea Croes, an exercise and rehabilitative sciences major from Aruba, works weekly with a young woman who wants to lose weight and get back into shape after a period of inactivity following an ankle fracture.
"I hope the research shows that the program we are implementing is meeting its goals and that each person has his or her individual goals met," she said. "My mentee and I are spending a lot of time at the gym and doing a lot of cardiac workouts."
Croes said she is thankful for the research opportunity; she came to SRU specifically for its exercise science program and the adapted minor.
"I am very grateful for this University," she said. "I feel like what I am doing and learning here can be applied to my community, in my country."
Katy Woolbright, a graduate student from Rhode Island, said she taught adapted physical education before deciding she wanted to pursue a master's degree in adapted physical activity. A search convinced her that SRU's program offered the best opportunities.
She said their work is important because it could improve clients' level of activity and nutrition, preventing secondary health conditions such as hypertension and diabetes.
"I am trying to show the mentees that they can participate in anything," she said. "I love the work. Children need it, and parents need it."
SRU launched its I Can Do It program in 2006, modeled after the I Can Do It, You Can Do It Program initiated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2004. The programs partners college students with individuals for eight-week units. In 2008, SRU received a three-year, $850,000 contract from the U.S. Health and Human Services Office to become the charter institution for a national expansion.
Many of student researchers plan to present at next year's SRU Symposium for Student Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity. The 2010 symposium is April 8-9.
Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania's premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.