Health Communication: An Online Assignment Transforms Into Student’s Real World Opportunity

Classroom assignments based on theory and research can sometimes feel disconnected from challenges faced in the “real world”. But Sarah Otto, a student in the online Master of Science in Nutrition Education program at the American University, recently discovered that an online assignment in her Health Communication course could make a real impact – both for her own professional development and for her local community.

“In our health communication course, we examine communication theory and practice at all levels: within the person, between people, and across cultures and communities,” explains Dr. Suzie Carmack, instructor in the MS in Nutrition Education online program and a health communication scholar and author. “In this course, students learn best practices and evidence-based strategies for designing, delivering and evaluating messages in the field of health promotion. We discover how we can more effectively and strategically promote health at the individual, organization, community and societal levels. And most of all, we learn how difficult and complex that process can actually be.”

Students report that they find the program’s blend of theory and practice to be both challenging and enlightening, especially in the accelerated 8-week course timeframe. As online student Otto notes, “In week three of our Health Communication course we learned about advocating nutrition-related policies to government officials. We were then asked to research an existing bill that we would like to discuss with a representative.” Through the project, Sarah learned that her very own local representative is Elise Stefanik, who co-sponsored and co-introduced H.R. 3886, along with Representative Suzanne Bonamici (Republican-Oregon). This bill calls for access to healthy snacks in schools so that children can more readily focus and learn in the classroom.

Although Sarah did not receive a response to her inquiry by the time the assignment was due, she did receive a response from Rep. Stefanik’s office. “It was a huge honor that she responded and added in information not only about what the bill would accomplish, but that she is working to facilitate the use of our area farms and their produce to use in our local schools.” Otto emphasized the entire experience was about more than just the assignment, “It was satisfying to know that at least on the local level I was able to reach my representative and receive a thoughtful response. This was real-life, on the job training for my future as a nutrition educator and realizing that I do have the potential to advocate for people within my community.”

Carmack adds that not all students have the same success as Otto did in receiving a direct response from their Representatives – but that this is all part of the course’s intended learning objectives for this particular assignment. “This assignment asks students to research current legislation in health promotion and nutrition education that they feel personally passionate about, to build an appeal strategy to support that legislation, and to find the best stakeholders to target that will help the legislation receive support. Like other assignments in this class, this entire process is based on theory and research in the field of health communication, specifically the field of health advocacy.”

She smiles and adds that as the theory of the assignment becomes real-world practice, students discover the complex ways that communication practices influence their chosen field of health promotion – in ways that they don’t always expect. “Students learn that communication is more than just a two-way process, it really is the co-creation of meaning between the sender, in this case the student, and the receiver, in this case the Representative.” Carmack notes that this lesson occurred both for those who had success in interacting with their Representative, like Otto, and for those that didn’t receive a response at all.

“It is interesting that the students who were ignored by their representatives learned perhaps the most from the entire experience, that they then shared with the rest of the class through our online forums. They learned what it feels like to have your appeal for communication ignored. These students concluded the assignment with a new and profound understanding of the importance of being responsive in their own communication behaviors – so as to avoid making others feel ignored as they had been and to become more effective in the field of health promotion."

Carmack concludes, “These types of lessons you can’t always gain from a textbook – they are best learned when they are experienced and felt. And they become even more impactful when they are shared with classmates from around the world, such as in our program."

More on the Health Communication Course

This course addresses distinct forms of delivering health promotion messages to consumers, professionals, and large groups through various communication methods and social marketing. The course is divided into three modules, covering health coaching, mass health communication, and consumer health writing and public speaking. Students have the opportunity to coach individuals, advocate for a health issue, or give a presentation on a health-related topic.

About Suzanne Carmack
Dr. Suzie Carmack, PhD, MFA, MEd, ERYT is the author of Well-Being Ultimatum and a Professorial Lecturer in the Department of Health Studies at the American University. Over the past 23 years, she has coached over 2000 individuals, teams and organizations in the optimization of their health, wellness and well-being. As a yoga teacher and teacher trainer, she has trained over 1000 yoga teachers throughout the U.S., Asia, and the Caribbean.

To learn more about American University’s online Master of Science in Nutrition Education, request more information or call us toll free at 855-725-7614.