Wayne State University

Wayne State faculty member helps Detroit Public School students use theatre to educate peers about nutrition

DETROIT– As public knowledge about healthy food alternatives in Detroit becomes more widespread, one Wayne State faculty member is giving students from Detroit Public Schools the chance to educate peers about nutrition through public service announcements (PSAs) they write, perform and produce.

Mary Elizabeth Anderson, Ph.D., assistant professor of Theatre in the WSU College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts, director of WSU’s Performance/Exchange program and resident of Birmingham, Mich., recently was funded by the Kresge Foundation for the Detroit Garden Classroom: A Healthy Kids Advocacy and Media Project. The project will launch a team of about 30 “student health advocates” from Spain Elementary/Middle School in Detroit to create innovative, engaging PSAs about how to eat, live and thrive in Detroit. The PSAs will be distributed to DPS schools and made available on DPS and WSU websites.

Anderson said the project gives 6th- through 8th-grade students the chance to not only be leaders in their own school but ambassadors to other DPS students in solving one of their most urgent problems. “This project is very much a response to what teachers and students name as the most pressing issue of Detroit Public Schools right now,” Anderson said. “In every school I visit, I hear the same question: ‘How can we get our students to eat healthier and lead more active lifestyles?’”

The PSAs will be inspired by the student health advocates’ trips to local gardens, markets and SEED Wayne-administered healthy corner stores. During these visits, students will meet performers from WSU’s Performance/Exchange program, who will give interactive lessons on the food cycle, seasons, local plants, life cycles, and important aspects of good nutrition and digestion. “The pairing of science and drama is designed to engage the student health advocates in the joys of outdoor play and learning at various locations in the city, while providing them with important decision-making skills in nutrition and healthy living,” Anderson said.

The project will involve a partnership between Wayne State’s Performance/Exchange program and visionary Spain drama teacher Beth Dzodin-Fuchs, who has seen firsthand the deleterious effects of poor nutrition on student achievement, and has dedicated the past two academic years to integrating health education into her playwriting classes. “Poor nutrition is immediately noticeable in drama classes, where children are using their bodies and their imaginations and are really learning by doing,” Dzodin-Fuchs said. “If children are getting good nutrition, they are able to focus and achieve a higher order of thinking skills and have a more effective learning experience.”

The Detroit Garden Classroom will take place during the 2010-11 school year. It’s one of several expansions on Anderson’s Performance/Exchange project, which began with Wayne State students performing at DPS schools. Through Anderson’s vision, the program has expanded to be more interactive and responsive to community issues.

“I see community engagement as a responsibility and a privilege for the arts at WSU, especially in terms of carrying out the university’s urban mission,” Anderson said. “To be living in and of your time and to respond – that’s the responsibility of an artist. Hopefully, this project will lead to many more that make people think and engage creatively to solve the problems of our time.”

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Wayne State University is one of the nation’s pre-eminent public research universities in an urban setting. Through its multidisciplinary approach to research and education, and its ongoing collaboration with government, industry and other institutions, the university seeks to enhance economic growth and improve the quality of life in the city of Detroit, state of Michigan and throughout the world. For more information on research at Wayne State University, visit http://www.research.wayne.edu.

The Kresge Foundation is a national, private foundation that seeks to influence the quality of life for future generations by creating access and opportunity in underserved communities, improving the health of low-income people, supporting artistic expression, assisting in the revitalization of Detroit, and advancing methods for dealing with global climate change.