LEARNING: NOT BY THE BOOK

By Brooke Adams, communications specialist, University Marketing & Communications

By the third song, dancers are filling the floor.

Two couples spin hand-in-hand, gently smiling, as they gracefully make their way across the room at the Sunday Anderson Westside Senior Center. Nearby, a student coaxes an older gentleman to dance.

This evening of food, dancing and fun has been organized by University of Utah students as their capstone project for the Family & Health BlockU program. It is the third year that U students have put on a Senior Prom and the senior citizens who patronize the center have “come to ask for it,” said Rebecca Utz, a sociology professor who co-teaches the BlockU program. “They say it is the highlight of the year.”

Now, as the Stratford Street Big Band — several of its members also are from the U — works its way through an oldies playlist, the students are experiencing the joy that comes from their hard work.

“I’ve loved it,” said Parker Smith, a first-year student from West Jordan. “It has been so fun. The seniors are so energetic and they always have a smile.”

The BlockU program is designed to help first-year students like Smith successfully navigate college. Students who participate in the program select from one of six thematically organized blocks, with courses spread over two semesters.

In addition to the Families & Health block, there are tracks on arts, leadership and community; medical humanities; entrepreneurship & society; work, wellness and the great outdoors; and The da Vinci, which centers on critical thinking courses.

By the end of their first year, most students will have completed general education requirements and had a chance to dip into areas that may lead to an eventual career.

Just as important, they’ll have formed a network of friends and faculty mentors and gained knowledge about how the academic system works.

The Families & Health block examines how families can promote health and well-being and manage chronic illness across the life course. Students choose from classes in life sciences, fine arts, humanities and applied science.

A key element of the block is participating in a community-engagement project, said Marissa Diener, a family and consumer studies professor who co-teaches the program with Utz.

“The goal of the project is to integrate academic information from their diverse general education courses — nutrition, art, movement — while also providing a service to the community,” Diener said.

There were three service projects in the Families & Health block this year. While one group planned the prom, another group of students came up with pre-school lessons about health topics such as oral hygiene and a third devised an educational game show broadcast to children at Primary Children’s Hospital.

Chuck Curtin, education specialist and school services program coordinator at Primary Children’s, came up with the idea for a weekly closed-circuit TV show. But he credits the students with making “Are you smarter than a . . .” a reality.

The show is broadcast from the hospital’s School Zone to patients’ rooms. Between 40 and 70 children participate each week, following along on a quiz sheet as host Mikey Kay of West Jordan poses 15 or so questions to a hospital staff member — a nurse, social worker, doctor, information technology specialist, chaplain, etc.

“This whole semester has been so much fun,” Kay said.

Although the semester has ended, most of the students involved in the show are going through volunteer training so they can continue the project.

“We really appreciate what they’ve done for us,” Curtin said. “It’s become very popular.”

Many of the students in the Families & Health block are thinking about pre-med or health-related majors, Utz said, but “they are starting to realize health is a lot more than being a doctor.”

Ali Holdeman, a first-year student from St. George who participated on the Senior Prom project, said she came to the U not knowing how college worked or exactly what she wanted to do. The BlockU program offered structure but also options. It helped solidify her interest in occupational therapy and working with elderly people. She has decided to major in the Health, Society & Policy Program and then go to graduate school.

“This gave me a chance to see if I really like working with older people,” said Holdeman.

The answer? Absolutely, yes — so much so that she even came to the center on Monday afternoons to join the senior citizens for a line dancing class.

“I love it,” Holdeman said. “I never was super into babies, but with the elderly I can still help. I can have verbal communication and learn from them and hear about their experiences.”

And, Holdeman said, she doesn’t have to worry about dropping a senior citizen, which is “a lot better than babies.”