Developing classes that tie together professional needs and real-world problems

Health Sciences and Honors professor Michelle Hesse encourages student civic engagement through leadership, public service and scholarship

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Michelle Hesse
Dr. Michelle Hess (third from left) with Honors Research Area of Emphasis students Elise Rasmussen, Tyler DeScenza, Emily Isola, SuMyat Lin, and Brianna Smith at the Virginia State University Undergraduate Research Conference on April 7, 2017. Not pictured is student Rachel Barborek.

When Dr. Michelle Hesse came to JMU she wanted to be a different kind of professor. She wanted to inspire a learning context that is supportive of interdisciplinary understanding and working with local partners, to take research out of the lab and into the community – competencies that fit honors students well. She knew that when faculty members are personally involved in fostering mentor relationships they transfer not only their knowledge, but also their attitudes and values.

Dr. Hesse is a graduate of the Honors Program at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown, NJ. Saint Elizabeth Honors gave her access to a community of scholars from all majors and disciplines and encouraged her to inspire, motivate, and share credit on the many teams of honors students with which she collaborated.

“I always wanted to be a chef,” Dr. Hesse recalls. “But that industry requires very long hours and has a high rate of failure.” She discovered food science and nutrition in college. “I was taking general chemistry and had a fantastic mentor in Dr. Kimberley Grant Laham. She made me feel special, and I wanted to be in her classes all of the time.” Dr. Hesse completed an undergraduate honors project sampling processed fish for essential fatty acids and mercury content. She found that different fish samples have different concentrations of two very specific fatty acids. One of those acids, omega-3 DHA, is implicated in brain and eye development in infants. “It’s very critical in the first one thousand days after conception,” Dr. Hesse explains. “The mother’s diet is critical in the growth and development of children.”

The research project taught her that she didn’t want to spend all of her time in a lab engaged in the scholarship of discovery. She wanted to answer questions, integrate approaches, apply them in the world, and be an engaged teacher. “The project was very empowering for me as a woman in science. Opportunities to participate in undergraduate research differentiate you from other candidates in terms of graduate school competitiveness. When I went for my interviews they wanted to know more about the research project than how I did on the GREs.”

Dr. Hesse also had a new direction. “I wanted to do something with people, specifically community-participatory research.” This sort of mixed approach is extraordinarily challenging. In the laboratory, a scientist can control a lot of variables. But in the community, a scholar must trust her relationships and personal observations. “We still do our literature reviews,” she notes, “but sometimes the questions and the answers come from key community informants who are right under our noses.

“For example, I recently partnered with a local school on a Body Mass Index (BMI) project. The school nurse realized – before I did – that the project wasn’t going to really achieve its objectives.” But then the nurse laid bare a new emerging problem related to vision screening. “School nurses are brilliant, but writing formal grants for equipment and creating research designs is really beyond the scope of their job description. As academics we can remain respectful of the profound efforts of others while enriching projects with our expertise and training.”

Dr. Hesse received her doctorate from OSUN, the Ohio State University Nutrition program. “I didn’t realize how important the interdisciplinary perspective was at age 22. A decade later, I am super grateful that I fell into a program like that.” OSUN recruited faculty from all corners of the university that were interested in the intersection of their own work and nutrition. Students were able to pick their doctoral advisors, even when they weren’t anchored to the Nutrition Department. “I actually studied with a pediatrician from the local hospital.” Dr. Hesse was very fortunate to make many connections and consult for the Food Innovations Center and in the Department of Nutrition. She worked on an Obesity Task Force bringing faculty together from all over campus to seed various collaborative, interdisciplinary projects.

“I was a cheerleader for obesity research. The task force project evolved into the development of a graduate minor in obesity sciences. Ultimately, my doctorate involved working in the community with school nurses in very low income parts of the city, and helping them develop screening protocols for BMI and a skin marker test for diabetes.”

Dr. Hesse acknowledges that every university is trying to chart their own course and do things differently. Food was one of the “discovery themes” that her graduate institution saw as critical to the future of the educational research. “I see the same vision in James Madison as an engaged university,” she says. “When I think of the engaged university I think about using my talents in the academy to solve problems for the locality, the state, and the world. I love traditional science, but we need to get away from looking at this just as the scholarship of discovery.”

“I think we want to be the problem-solving university. We can’t box ourselves in. We need to come up with different ways to evaluate the work that we do. We need to get beyond the rubric.”

Dr. Hesse sees her full year Research Area of Emphasis seminar in the JMU Honors College as a pivotal contribution to JMU’s future academic direction. She based the course sequence off her real-world collaboration with the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank. “I asked them two questions pretty early on last semester which took them off guard,” she recalls. “I asked them, ‘What do you all want to do with the food pantry? What do you want to get out of this?’” No professor had ever, quite so directly anyway, asked them to shape the initial conditions for the class.

It was a watershed moment for both the students and for Dr. Hesse. “At first we were really operating in the dark. When the lights are off and you can’t see where you are going, your other senses become heightened. You can feel the gentle breeze and hears sounds coming from various directions.” To keep things organized they created a log book to document the activities of the class. It allowed for a point of reference for everyone. Pretty quickly, the students began making entries without even Dr. Hesse asking.

After engaging in this process of feeling around for the dimensions of the area under survey, the students and Dr. Hesse established a research question. “One of the things they were very interested in – and we used the previous literature and some real-time information that they noticed from observations – was the hours of availability for the food pantry. Why aren’t food pantries open 24 hours a day like convenience stores? Did this mean people needed to take time off from work?”

The students collected data on nights, weekends, and at any time except class time because the local food pantry wasn’t open those hours. “I tried to give them hours back from class,” Dr. Hesse laughs, “but they did not want to cancel class. They wanted to come anyway.” The class had to go up for a full review of its survey methodology because they were working with a vulnerable, low income population. Their data sample is split in half between two groups of people – people on government assistance benefit, and those who are not. The students presented preliminary results at the Virginia State University Undergraduate Research Conference and are now at work on their final report on “The Effect of Food Pantry Operations on Client Resource Use and Access.” In addition to Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, the class collaborated with Hope Distributed, Blessed Sacrament, and Harrisonburg Seventh Day Adventist Church food pantries.

Integrated Science & Technology (ISAT) major Brianna Smith, a member of the honors class, says that the project provided her with “endless opportunities” to “showcase my hard work.” Athletic training major Kathryn Young says that “talking to real people” while conducting the research totally changed her perspective. Sophomore Applied Mathematics student Elise Rasmussen notes that this was the first research conference she had ever attended: “We were able to form connections and learn skills that will aid us in our aspirations. One judge even said, ‘Your school has done you all well.’ So true! Go DUKES!”

Comments Dr. Hesse, “When I give an honors student a task, the results are amazing. I don’t typically have to give additional instructions to ensure a great process or a terrific product. There’s a desire on the part of the student to know more. They become self-directed learners. I am left in the role of the ‘guide on the side’ rather than the ‘sage on the stage.’ They are able to take what I give them and apply their own perspective to it.”

“I think the Areas of Emphasis sequence is a hallmark of the Honors College,” she explains. “It gives students the ability to select and personalize their honors experience. That’s pretty profound.”

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Published: Thursday, April 27, 2017

Last Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2023

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