An immersive experience for kinesiology students


By: Trudy Horsting
Creative Services Student Writer

PHOTO: Mt Mitchell

It’s not every day you get to go camping with your professors, but every April for the past six years, Mike Saunders and Nick Luden have led a group of kinesiology students on a unique educational opportunity in the mountains of North Carolina. The purpose of the trip is to study the impact of altitude on exercise, but participants gain additional rewards that result from learning in the field and sharing time together outdoors.

The idea of the trip was sparked by the desire of Saunders and Luden to provide their students a hands-on learning experience. Mt. Mitchell is the highest peak east of the Mississippi River, which makes it the perfect place for testing the effects of altitude on exercise. With some helpful connections and carefully planned logistics, the first trip occurred in 2012.  Thanks to continued support from the department, the experience is offered every year to graduate and undergraduate students enrolled in exercise physiology courses.

The trip begins on a Friday morning, as students and staff pile in buses and embark on the four hour drive to Blowing Rock, North Carolina. After dinner, the group heads to the ZAP Fitness Facility. ZAP is a self-sustained, post-collegiate running facility for Olympic hopefuls located approximately 90 minutes from the summit of Mt. Mitchell. There, participants engage in a Q&A session with elite athletes and their coaches. Saunders explains, They are able to ask questions directly to a group of individuals who are living the concepts we discuss in class.  This makes the course information far more personal for our students – and they get to see firsthand the level of dedication and discipline that is necessary to compete as an endurance athlete at an elite level.”

On Saturday, the group travels to the peak where they conduct exercise tests. Luden explains, “One at a time, each of the graduate students perform an incremental exercise test until fatigue, while their classmates facilitate the test and collect data. The physiological data are added to a database from previous trips, and then compared to the data gathered at JMU.” Undergraduates observe the testing closely and question their graduate peers. After the experiments are over, students can choose to spend the night camping in the mountains.

Andrew D’Lugos (’12) and Alec McKenzie (’13) participated as undergraduates their senior year, and again as graduate students in 2013 and 2014. Now they are doctoral candidates at Arizona State University and the University of Utah, respectively. They both recognize the benefits of including graduate and undergraduate students on the trip, as it creates a unique space for networking and professional growth. Their advice to current JMU students is to immerse yourself in the program. D’Lugos says, “College students hear too often- ‘you get what you put in’ but I can’t emphasize enough that’s the truth. Fully immersing yourself in all that the kinesiology program has to offer will be hugely beneficial to establishing your professional trajectory and building lasting bonds.” McKenzie adds, “Luden was my primary mentor for three years at JMU and he gave me the same advice about immersion. It’s so important to take advantage of every opportunity you’re offered. It’s advice that universally applies to any student.”

The unique environment of the trip encourages casual conversations between students and their mentors. This facilitates relationship-building in a way that a classroom experience simply can’t. Saunders says, “The most rewarding aspect of the trip is getting to know the students on a more personal level. It gives us the opportunity to learn more about their personal background and interests– and we have great students in the exercise science program.”

The network between faculty, students, and professionals who have embarked on the trip to Mt. Mitchell continues to grow each year. Luden says, “I hope to be able expand the trip to include human performance students and faculty from other universities in the region. Many of our alumni identify the Mt. Mitchell trip as one of the top experiences during their time at JMU.” There’s something about sitting around a campfire in the middle of a forest that establishes a very special relationship.  Saunders and Luden are excited to continue to foster these bonds this spring.

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Published: Sunday, October 1, 2017

Last Updated: Tuesday, December 8, 2020

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