Phillip Tomporowski, a professor in the Department of Kinesiology in the UGA College of Education, believes great things start to happen when university outreach extends academic resources to meet community needs.
Since 2007, Tomporowski and his colleague Bryan McCullick, also a professor in the Department of Kinesiology, have partnered with the Clarke County School District (CCSD) on a project that evaluates the effects of a specialized afterschool program focused on physical activity, mathematics and reading. Based on initial findings in 2014 they were awarded a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant from the Georgia Department of Education to study how physical activity influences children's academic performance. The Physical Activity and Learning Program, or PAL, is conducted in two CCSD schools: Chase Street Elementary and Fowler Drive Elementary.
PAL is a multidisciplinary program that involves faculty from the UGA Colleges of Education, Public Health and Family and Consumer Sciences. It is aimed at stimulating children's academic achievement in mathematics and reading while increasing physical activity levels and health behaviors. The program also promotes family involvement in guiding children's academic and health-related behaviors at home.
In recognition of these efforts, Tomporowski is the 2016 recipient of the Engaged Scholar Award, presented annually by the Office of the Vice President for Public Service and Outreach since 2008.The award recognizes a full-time, tenured faculty member for significant contributions in public service, outreach and community service.
"Dr. Tomporowski's work starts with and maintains a focus on the needs of kids. As a result, the impact of his research extends beyond the theoretical and improves kids' lives every day," said Chase Street Elementary School Principal Adam Kurtz. "The benefits of his work are apparent in the data, but its true significance is best understood by seeing firsthand the enthusiasm for learning, teamwork and perseverance the PAL program inspires in our kids."
Tomporowski, who has been interested in physical activity and cognition for the last three decades, says the goal from the beginning was to take lab-based research findings and translate them into hands-on, workable practice through the schools.
"We work closely with principals and teachers to provide a unique afterschool program that focuses specifically on elementary school students who struggle academically in math and reading, fail to engage in adequate physical activity and live in economically disadvantaged homes," he said. "The program is designed to be one that interfaces with the school and supplements what they are already doing in the classroom."
Each afternoon begins with a 45-minute physical activity that is both challenging and teaches students to control behaviors, actions or thoughts. After the activity, students participate in enrichment courses in reading and math.
"Historically people have thought children should study first then play; our data suggests if you play first then teach, they will learn better," Tomporowski said.
The academic background for PAL is based on a book, "Physical Activity Games to Enhance Children's Cognition," written by Tomporowski, McCullick and their colleague, Caterina Pesce, a professor at the University of Rome. They are currently working with the book's publisher on an online continuing education course that will allow them to expand the program regionally, nationally and internationally.
The PAL program also heavily emphasizes teacher preparation through a graduate training and undergraduate service-learning program. UGA professors in education, health promotion and kinesiology currently mentor five graduate students and several undergraduate students, teaching them how to design and teach physical activity games that enhance the children's mental functioning.
"I believe one of the most important things about teaching is communicating to students the steps necessary to acquire skills and reach a level of competency. I can teach students in a classroom setting, but the real test is whether or not they can take that information and use it in the real world," Tomporowski said.
The principals, administrators and teachers at the two CCSD schools that work closely with UGA faculty to design and implement the PAL program agree that it provides services they could not begin to provide to their students. The principals have reported improvements in children's overall behavior, academic performance and levels of physical fitness.
Tomporowski and his colleagues hope to expand into additional schools. They will continue working with the Georgia Department of Education and the Georgia Department of Public Health to make methods developed from the PAL program readily available.