If health education is dynamic, interactive, and fun, children will come. CentraStates Student Health Awareness Center in Freehold, N.J., banked on that premise and now welcomes children by the busload.
SHAC, a department of CentraState Medical Centers Star and Barry Tobias Health Awareness Center, has gained recognition as a unique educational venue for children from preschool through high school. SHAC offers interactive exhibits and extensive health education programs taught in specially designed classrooms.
If students cannot travel to SHAC on a class trip or with a parent, its educators travel to them. When educators travel off-site to schools, they bring props related to their presentation topic. To represent tar in a smokers lungs, for example, the educator may bring a jar of tar or an oversized cigarette.
Mary Ann Roper, RN, MA, director of the Star and Barry Tobias Health Awareness Center, says SHAC has taught more than 320,000 students since opening in 1991. On average, she says, 20,000 students and adults visit the center each year.
In 2007, SHAC enhanced its program with the inclusion of a mini health science museum named the Michelle and Jennifer Tobias Adventure to Health, a combination of 19 computerized, interactive exhibits. Each exhibit is separated by gigantic rib bones while a massive, simulated spinal cord suspends from the ceiling.
Roper says SHAC and Adventure to Health are the result of generous donations and the desire to expand CentraStates health education program for children. She headed the planning team for both expansions and says the goal was to provide museum-quality exhibits and displays intended to attract students attention and maintain their interest while at the same time educate them a challenge for many educators in this fast-paced, technological age.
We are dealing with a different generation of children, says Josephine Chilton, RN, MSN, PNP, a community health educator at SHAC. These children are high tech, where generations before were not. We are constantly trying to offer something for these children that they cannot get in the classroom.
Not many schools can offer students the ability to stick their hands up a 4-foot nose, travel on a virtual tour of the digestive track, or type their names in Braille. Youth also can power a race car with pedals, calculate the nutritional value of a drive-through meal, examine a 3-foot marijuana joint, observe as a brain compromised by alcohol sends signals to an illuminated car driver, see life-size fetal development and a 3-D model of the birth sequence, or hear a transparent anatomical mannequin speak to them.
Color, lights, and sound, says Stephanie ONeil, RN, BS, program coordinator for SHAC. We are using as many of the senses as we can to create a learning environment for students.
ONeil, who was on the centers planning team with Roper, says one of the philosophies at SHAC is that learning should be fun. Instructors use creativity to teach students how to make healthy life choices. Creativity is a big aspect of this job, Chilton says.
Her classes incorporate the use of props, role playing, MTV videos, and interactive displays on the classroom walls. She says the challenge is finding a balance between overwhelming students and providing them with information they can use. She says understanding the emotional and cognitive development of each grade level is necessary when planning and teaching.
Program topics range from nutrition and physical development to sexuality and self-esteem. Some issues addressed include cyber bullying, addiction, suicide, and relationship violence.
The center also welcomes special requests for programs tailored to a schools specific need or needs in the community, Chilton says. For example, she says her GPS for Parents: Navigating Your Daughters Tween Years class evolved as she identified the need for a parents program to compliment the Girls for Real class she offers to middle school students.
We have our feelers out and get the pulse of the community, Chilton says. As an educator and RN, she researches, plans, and develops programs as needed.
The staff is comprised of five educators: three RNs, a former high school science teacher, and a program instructor. ONeil says each educator develops instructional programs based on his or her expertise and interest.
SHAC creates, designs, and delivers its own programs, ONeil says. The programs are not scripted, but we use outlines and syllabuses to keep the programs consistent so any educator can pick up the syllabus and teach generally the same content. We never want to script our programs because we want to make the best use of any teachable moments that happen.
This summer the center introduced weeklong day camps. One includes solving a crime like the popular CSI TV series, while the other teaches anatomy-physiology and involves visits to several departments within CentraState Medical Center.
As the economy takes a nose dive, we have to be more creative in terms of the things we can do for schools that have limited or, in some cases, no budget for health education, ONeil says. Children still need information regarding good health habits and prevention of disease.