Teachers College to Conduct PowerUp! Study: Literacy as the Foundation for Healthy Learning

By Mark Scherzer

blogpicIn 2007, the Provost’s Investment Fund of Teachers College, Columbia University was created to foster cross-disciplinary projects with the potential to add more value to the college. Since that time, the fund has awarded numerous seed grants of up to $20,000 each for innovative projects.  Dr. Sonali Rajan, Assistant Professor of Health Education at TC, was recently awarded one of these grants to conduct an evaluation of PowerUp! that merges both the Health and English Departments of the college. We sat down with her to discuss the details.

IW: The title of the grant you received is:  “Literacy as the Foundation for Health Learning.”  Can you explain what you mean by this?

SR:  Through this grant, we’re hoping to demonstrate that literacy is essential to gaining health knowledge and skills.  But further, and perhaps most importantly, we’re hoping to demonstrate that if youth are engaged in learning health, they’re more likely to also further their literacy skill development.  It’s a reciprocal relationship and one that we’re excited about exploring with this grant.


IW:  What are some of the aims of the study?

SR:  There are four aims.  First, to compare changes on school engagement between youth participating in PowerUp! and youth not exposed to the program.  Second, to compare changes in nutrition knowledge, self-efficacy, and perceived norms regarding fruit, vegetable and water intake between youth participating in the program and those who are not. Third, to evaluate the feasibility of integrating this innovative nutrition program into middle-school English Language Arts (ELA) classes. And fourth, to utilize this work to foster an active and productive discussion among Teachers College faculty, students, and administrators on integrating health learning with core academic subjects and developing best practices for teachers working in NYC schools.


IW:  Why did you choose the Ironwill Kids PowerUp! program as the intervention?

SR:  Perhaps one of the best aspects of the Ironwill Kids’ PowerUp! program is that it is beautifully designed to engage youth in their learning, while also empowering them to take ownership of their health.  PowerUp! is the kind of program I want kids to be a part of, and so I’m honored to have the opportunity to rigorously evaluate the impact of this intervention.


IW:  What are some of the things you’ll be measuring in this study?

SR:  We’ll be measuring a number of different factors, among them, schoolengagement, nutrition knowledge, and program feasibility.


IW:  How will the findings contribute to the literature?

SR:  A number of researchers, educators, and psychologists alike have and continue to advocate for an education system that works with and supports the “whole child”; specifically, that synergistic efforts are made to improve youth’s quality of health and engagement in their learning process. In this context, we believe that educators must therefore address, not only gaps in health knowledge and behavioral skills, but also ensure that youth are cultivating key academic skills that facilitate an ability to learn.  We expect and hope that our study’s findings will contribute to that research base.  More specifically, we expect we will see significant increases in school engagement, nutrition knowledge, and a positive shift in normalizing healthy food consumption (e.g., fruit, vegetable, and water intake) during the school day.


IW:  How do you plan to disseminate the results so we can learn more?

SR:  To facilitate the broader dissemination of the study’s findings, as well as foster a conversation among faculty, administrators, and students at Teachers College, we plan to share the study’s findings via the Institute for Urban Minority Education (IUME).  We will be hosting a colloquium in 2014 with IUME that would provide the opportunity for individuals across Teachers College departments to come together for a substantive conversation about integrating health learning with core academic subjects and developing best practices for teachers working in NYC schools.  Further, we are aiming to publish the results and corresponding implications of this work in the Journal of School Health, as well as in the two leading literacy journals: English Journal and Research in the Teaching of English.


IW:  Why do you believe that this project is relevant to Teachers College?

SR:  Among the many initiatives that Teachers College promotes and supports, is the institution’s dedication to addressing critical health and learning needs among youth.  There is strong evidence confirming the relationship between poor health and a reduced ability to effectively learn; however, few efforts exist that actively treat health and learning as integrated issues.  In addition, while there are a number of school-based nutrition programs available, few, if any, actively facilitate academic engagement by improving literacy skills via interactive and creative learning methods.  Further, few health education programs meet current National English Language Arts and National Health Standards. Research on in-classroom initiatives is promising and suggests that school-based nutrition education programs for youth, such asPowerUp!, have potential to improve both health and learning outcomes.

Dr. Sonali Rajan, Ed.D, M.S. is an Assistant Professor of Health Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.  She is the Principal Investigator for this grant.