Nutrition science students make learning fun for kids

Students from the department of nutrition sciences are teaching at-risk youth the importance of healthy lifestyle choices as a partner in the Love A Sea Turtle (L.A.S.T.) program held at River Park North this summer.

Founded in 2005, L.A.S.T. is a non-profit organization dedicated to marine and ocean conservation awareness by engaging college students in leadership development and environmental stewardship, inspiring others to get involved in year-round service projects and activities, and providing nature-based summer programs for under-served youth.

Dr. Melani Duffrin, founder of FoodMASTER, professor in the department of nutrition science, and director of special projects for the ECU STEM Center, plays an essential role in implementing nutrition education activities and recruiting ECU students to participate as counselors in the program.

“The Love A Sea Turtle program has offered a different approach to FoodMASTER and nutrition instruction and we are thrilled to be a part of the efforts,” she stated. “It is our goal to continue this model as our contribution to the science education culture of eastern N.C.”

During the summer, L.A.S.T. offers free, one-day field trips to children from a variety of organizations across Eastern North Carolina including the Boys and Girls Club of the Coastal Plains, Operation Sunshine, Police Athletic League (PAL), and Sharing Positive Outcomes Together (SPOT).

Jared Lowe counsels attendees at the day camp.

Jared Lowe counsels attendees at the day camp.

“Our program aims to get youth outside to appreciate all the interconnections between nature, physical activity, and food,” said L.A.S.T. volunteer board member Dan Sokolovic.

Each day, a different organization attends the camp where their youth is divided into groups and assigned to a student counselor, many of whom are nutrition science students.

Campers visit a variety of stations to complete activities that incorporate science and nutrition. They participate in a scavenger hunt, water quality testing, kayaking, fishing, and team building. Scavenger hunts test their knowledge of the five food groups while integrating a variety of nature lessons along the trail.

“We want these kids to see that you can learn about nutrition and science and also be outside,” says Sokolovic. “We show them that there’s more to summer than playing X-box or being inside of a building playing basketball.”

“These kids don’t want to be indoors all day and what we provide isn’t otherwise offered to them without a high price tag,” said Patrick Shirley, executive director for L.A.S.T.

Shirley believes that most kids have little interest in math and science but when they come to this camp and are offered hands-on activities, their perspective changes.

“We are making nutrition and science fun and the kids don’t even realize that they are learning,” said Shirley.

Department of Nutrition Science graduate assistant Allender Lynch has been involved in the program over the past three years and witnessed the impact these programs are having on the children.

“Through this design, we have been able to target a large number of youth (nearly 2,000 attendees in 2015), and successfully included a variety of ages as well,” Lynch noted.

“When the children participate, they are not only excited and ready for a full day of fun and learning, they are also remembering the activities, lessons, and the people who are involved.”

“These youth are getting the message and they are learning,” said Sokolovic. “Do I think we are making a difference? Yes, absolutely.”

In the future, Duffrin hopes to offer an additional one-day science experience for the same clubs and organizations on ECU’s campus.

“The work from Melani Duffrin and the students from the department of nutrition science has been instrumental in our success,” Sokolovic continued. “This group of faculty and students is committed to the success of our program because they believe in it. We all do.”