The Whole Person and Physiological Adaptations
HSCI-350 Physiological Adaptations is a capstone course for Human Science seniors offered in both the fall and spring semesters. We study physiological responses in humans to extreme conditions, such as high altitude, polar climates, and microgravity in space. Activation of compensatory mechanisms that follow the initial reaction to such stressful environments can result in homeostatic changes. It is here, the ability for humans to recalibrate to their environment and thrive in the face of extreme physiological challenges, where we explore our capacity for adaptation.
However, homeostasis in other aspects of the college student beyond academics, health and wellness of the physical, as well as behavioral, and socio-mental conditions, are often not explicitly addressed in the rigorous curriculum of our students. At an institution such as ours and in a major in which the majority of its students are pre-med, it is rather easy to prioritize academic performance over mental or physical wellness. Here, we explored the notion that the use of a FitBit and/or tracking their related activity would qualitatively increase a student’s awareness of their physical well being throughout the semester and, possibly, other components of their experience as graduating seniors. FitBit is an electronic tracking device an individual wears to record one’s activity (steps), calories burned, sleep, and weight. Individuals can invite friends to share their progress with, often creating a community of support. In addition, students were invited to share their established baseline of activity, their goals related to exercise / physical activity, as well as their progress via a shared Google Spreadsheet. I included my information in this spreadsheet.
As mentioned above, our broader objective was to qualitatively determine whether or not use of this device and the shared tracking of an individual’s progress and goals would increase their overall wellness. Thus, in an effort to maximize an opportunity to engage students beyond coursework, our course also had an Engelhard Project component. To highlight social and emotional progress, presented as “adaptations” to young adulthood and college life, in development of the whole person we introduced the EQ-i 2.0 assessment. Following distribution of the resulting feedback reports, which characterizes an individual’s social/emotional intelligence, Dr. Patrick Kilcarr (Health Education Services) facilitated a discussion on the value of enhancing social/emotional intelligence in their respective lives and the dominant aspects of living with and achieving socioemotional equilibrium. Furthermore, students were invited to meet one-on-one with Dr. Kilcarr to discuss issues related to strengthening their emotional intelligence specific to their EQ-i feedback report. The data revealed that intellectually capable students that struggle emotionally and/or socially fail to utilize the depth and breadth of their entire capabilities. Increasing a student’s awareness of their socio-mental well-being via the EQ-i assessment was then followed by use of the FitBit and tracking of progress via the Google Spreadsheet. In addition to one’s physical progress, students were encouraged to provide similar information regarding any socio-mental related aspects of their wellbeing. Finally, students were invited to include any academic or professional goals and progress in the spreadsheet, with the purpose of framing their “whole person” in the context of college students / young adults. In doing so, we directly addressed one of the Cohort Track themes of using technology to inspire and support students’ efforts to integrate the whole of their educational experiences… so as better to shape and to understand their personal growth.
Furthermore, this approach encouraged ongoing deep reflection on how students are engaging their senior year, which direction their choices are taking them, and what changes they consider important to move toward feeling and living a true sense of homeostasis. These elements of reflection provided a strong foundation for our proposal goals, enabling further experimentation with variables such as tracking of the group as a whole, dialogue among individuals with similar interests and goals, and ultimately, expanding beyond this course or even the University.
To assess our impact on student learning via use of the FitBit and Google Spreadsheet, we provided the following prompts for the students to select two to address and reflect upon.
Writing Prompts over the semester of 300-400 words
- What does a healthy community look like?
- Describe a time when you tried to change a behavior. Describe that experience. What helped you? What challenged you?
- How are you using what you are learning in this course in another context this semester, can be in another course in a co-curricular activity or in your personal life.
- How will you use what you have learned with this project as you go forward? What is your take away lesson from this project experience?
- Culture is a complex and dynamic concept. Explain the following, “Wellness behaviors occur within a cultural context.”
20 of the 23 students in the class participated in the use of the FitBit. Their complete responses are provided as a separate document. Prior to requesting their responses, one class period was dedicated to discussing these questions and the different perspectives students may have. Student reflections were organized by writing prompt, and then reviewed in this manner. The majority of students overwhelmingly provided responses that addressed their notion of a healthy community and described an attempt to change their behavior.
A healthy community was understood by many students to include multiple characteristics, such as physical, mental, and emotional conditions, and the responses of individuals and members of their community to stressors affecting them. The latter notion was a pleasant surprise as this response suggests that the students were incorporating coursework (adaptations to stressors) into this project and. potentially, even their “whole person.” Interestingly, many students highlighted behavior as a component to consider when assessing the health of a community. Representative examples of these perspectives include:
- A healthy community is one that supports each other and aids one another in achieving their goals. They celebrate together, mourn together, and grow together. The community adapts over time to deal with the stresses of each individual and of the community as a whole, much as the human body adapts to changes in its own environment. A healthy community need not be “healthy” in the sense that everyone is physically fit, but it needs to be “healthy” in the sense that it functions in a way that is best for each individual, again, much as the human body need not be perfectly physically fit to sustain life and allow for flourishing.
- A healthy community is one in which members feel included, have a sense of ownership, and feel supported in pursuing their goals. It also involves a high level of self-care, perspective, and reflection. I used to think of health as primarily physical, and secondarily mental and emotional, but I now hold the opposite view…
- Perhaps the most important aspect of inspecting a healthy community is that not every healthy community will look the same. …culture and context play a considerable role in determining what it means to be healthy. A healthy community cannot be generalized as one that is progressive or economically successful. At Georgetown, we may consider ourselves healthy when we are constantly busy and a little bit stressed. A retirement community may gauge health by medical parameters and happiness by the elimination of stress.
Student responses to changing behavior were also interesting in that they highlight the role of a community or support system in their individual challenges. These responses highlighted to desire and need of our students to be nourished beyond the classroom or academics. They are thoughtful, capable, and driven individuals, yet still seek guidance in their personal growth and development. While many instructors already address components of an individual such as, it would be beneficial to explicitly state these objectives or inevitable consequences of taking one of our courses. Additionally, being more reflective throughout the semester, rather than merely at the end of the term will encourage mindful progression throughout the student experience in our course. Use of writing prompts similar to those used here could aid in this endeavor. Similarly, discussions along these lines in place of written responses could be sufficient in keeping a student’s whole person in the forefront. Overall, tracking progression and discussion on this development are useful tools to incorporate in the cultivation of whole persons.
These responses highlighted to desire and need of our students to be nourished beyond the classroom or academics. They are thoughtful, capable, and driven individuals, yet still seek guidance in their personal growth and development. While many instructors already address components of an individual such as, it would be beneficial to explicitly state these objectives or inevitable consequences of taking one of our courses. Additionally, being more reflective throughout the semester, rather than merely at the end of the term will encourage mindful progression throughout the student experience in our course. Use of writing prompts similar to those used here could aid in this endeavor. Similarly, discussions along these lines in place of written responses could be sufficient in keeping a student’s whole person in the forefront. Overall, tracking progression and discussion on this development are useful tools to incorporate in the cultivation of whole persons.