Nutrition science can be difficult for consumers to digest, but Christina Liew-Newville, MS, RDN, LD, FAND, found a way to help her dietetics class make it engaging.
Assistant Professor of Dietetics, Dietetic Technician Program Director, Tarrant County College, Fort Worth, TX
MS in Nutritional Sciences, BS in Food Science and Human Nutrition, Certificate for Dietetic internship
Do you know how many teaspoons of added sugar are in a can of soda—or how that fits into your recommended daily limit? Most Americans do not, says Christina Liew-Newville, MS, RDN, LD, FAND, assistant professor of dietetics at Tarrant County College in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. But she hopes her students can help change that.
Liew-Newville says that many Americans do not have adequate knowledge about nutrition—and what they do “know” is often either outdated or, unfortunately, incorrect. That makes her work as the director of the school’s Dietetic Technician Program vital.
The program that Liew-Newville directs allows students to earn an associate of applied science (AAS) degree as a dietetic technician in just two years. That makes it an attractive choice for students who do not have the time or financial resources to become a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), which requires about five years of study. While the RDN credential offers more professional autonomy, the associate degree prepares students to work under an RDN to advise clients on the dietary choices that can help them achieve their health goals.
However, that knowledge is not enough to make these students—or their future clients—successful.
Turning nutrition science into relatable advice for the public
Two-year community colleges like Tarrant County College play a vital role in training workers—often older workers looking to reskill and restart their careers—in high-demand jobs. The challenges for the students in the Dietetic Technician Program are twofold: First, they often have very little experience in researching or studying complex science. Second, they likely have never had to distill complex science into straightforward talking points that will motivate the public.
A decade ago, professors might not have put as much emphasis on the mastery of communication skills, Liew-Newville says, but that has changed in recent years. Dietetics students need stronger “soft skills,” for building relationships and working with people from various backgrounds. If students can master these skills, they will be effective in teaching the public about healthy eating habits, Liew-Newville explains.
“It is not enough to study nutrition,” she says. “A student may be very passionate and knowledgeable about nutrition, but he or she has to learn to bring all that knowledge down to the consumer level.”
Fortunately, an event where students could practice those skills was already available, right on campus.
Make public interaction a key event in the course
Every fall, Tarrant County College holds a health fair for students and the general public. This one-day event provides access to important health screenings (including blood pressure, cholesterol, and vision) as well as general health and wellness information from local professionals and vendors.
For Liew-Newville, it was exactly the opportunity her students needed. She integrated participation in the health fair into her course: Students work together to create and operate a “nutrition booth,” complete with nutrition information displays and interactive activities that turn complicated nutrition facts into engaging information for a general consumer audience.
“This puts students on the frontlines and gives them the experience of what a future career in nutrition could be like,” she says.
“It is not enough to study nutrition. A student may be very passionate and knowledgeable about nutrition, but he or she has to learn to bring all that knowledge down to the consumer level.”— Christina Liew-Newville, MS, RDN, LD, FAND
Course description: A study of the nutritional status of populations at the national, state, and local community levels. Socioeconomic, cultural, and psychological influences on eating behaviors, national and state health objectives, marketing strategies for objective implementation, and community nutrition programs serving risk-group populations. Basic teaching/counseling methods for the nutrition education of small groups and individual clients/patients.
See resources shared by Christina Liew-Newville, MS, RDN, LD, FANDSee materials
Lesson: The Health Fair Booth Project
Students’ participation in the health fair centers around the creation of displays that draw the public into a conversation about nutrition and health. The concepts can be simple—they do not need to win design awards. For Liew-Newville, the exercise is meant to convey the challenge of creating materials that are both evidence-based and engaging: It is one thing to set up materials in a booth, but it is another thing altogether to make displays that are both well researched and compelling enough to make a passerby want to stop, look, and ask questions. This project provides students a window into what works (and what does not work) when it comes to speaking to the public.
It also shows them that it takes considerable time and effort to prepare for such events. As Liew-Newville explains, she devotes weeks of the course to the research and creation of these displays.
Here, she shares the process that allows students to go from scholarly research to compelling conversations about nutrition.
Ask for multiple deliverables
Before dividing the class into teams, Liew-Newville sets clear expectations around the display and the research needed to create it. There are three main components to each display:
- A two-page nutrition brochure. This is where the details and key takeaways live—and often where students dive in before creating the other materials. Liew-Newville insists that students include useful information, appropriate graphics, and citations from professional sources.
- An interactive game. The game or activity must engage and educate health-fair participants on the chosen topic.
- A display board. The board needs to be eye-catching while making the topic easy for the public to understand and encouraging interaction.
Share inspiration from past fairs
Liew-Newville keeps a bank of previous presentations that she puts on display in class so that students can see what has worked well in previous years. Students often improve on those ideas and apply them to new concepts, though they are certainly free to tackle a different topic entirely.
Sample Project: Are You Sipping Smart?
Liew-Newville says that one of the most effective displays at a recent fair was a large trifold panel focused on the health effects of soda consumption, with the words “Sip Smart” in the middle. Even a soda fanatic with no intention of giving up a two-liter-a-day habit could learn a few lessons from the clear, simple illustrations. (And to the students’ credit, the most technical words on the entire display were side effects and grams.)
Why was it effective? The Sip Smart display offered visitors the chance to ask a lot of questions, including:
- How much sugar am I drinking?
- Should I quit soda?
- Do I need to drink more water?
- How much exercise does it take to burn off a Big Gulp?
Fairgoers learned that a typical 12-ounce can of soda contains eight teaspoons of added sugar. That is two teaspoons more than the daily cutoff suggested for women by the American Heart Association, and just one teaspoon shy of the upper limit for men. Incidentally, to burn off a 20-ounce, 250-calorie of soda, a 140-pound person would have to jog for about 23 minutes.
For dramatic effect, the bottom of the display had plastic bags beneath pictures of five popular drinks, each containing the number of teaspoons of table sugar found in one serving of that beverage.
For eye-grabbing content that encouraged public interactivity, it was a big win.
Create balanced teams
Liew-Newville helps to arrange the groups of three or four members so that there is a good mix of skills in each: graphic design, writing, crafting, and building. The team chooses its own leader—someone who is a good organizer, who can keep dialogue going outside of the classroom, and who can delegate or take charge if things start to go off the rails.
“There are always different personalities and negotiations that take place,” says Liew-Newville, “but we don’t switch groups. We work through each of the challenges.”
Get them talking—and researching—together
During the project phase of the class, Liew-Newville often focuses time on group discussions, not lectures. This is especially helpful while students are diving into the research of their topics. Talking through their research as a group—or as a class—helps students internalize it and lets them practice putting it in terms that are easy to understand. “This will help students gain experience in discussing the information with each other before they work with the public,” Liew-Newville says.
Evaluate the experience after the event
The teams are graded as a group, based on the level of their teamwork and collaboration. (Students give input into this through an anonymous peer evaluation form.)
The students also hold a group discussion after the event, which Liew-Newville refers to as a debriefing. “During the debriefing, you can hear how impactful talking to the public was,” Liew-Newville says. “The students got questions they didn’t predict or didn’t know the answer to. Generally, they handle the situations well, just as they would have to in the workplace.”
She also sees the difference the work—and the fair—make in her students’ perspectives. “They become very passionate about their work after the experience,” she says. “Many of them have an aha! moment at the fair. It’s exciting to see them practicing what they have learned.”
Roughly 70 people have graduated from the Dietetic Technician, AAS, program during the last 10 years. Student testimonials from the college website show that project-based learning and integrating the fair into the course are invaluable tools. Students cite two reasons: It gives them confidence and hands-on experience they can talk about in job interviews with potential employers.
Students have also told Liew-Newville that they enjoyed the project even given the hard work involved, as these course evaluation comments show:
“The project was a success, despite ups-and-downs.”
“This project was fun, informative, and I had a great group to work with.”
“Although we had a few hurdles overall my team did pull it together in the end.”
“Thank you for this experience. It was harder than I thought. I am looking forward to future groups and better improvements.”