Through 41 years of teaching at St. Ambrose, Barb Walker, PhD, has seen her share of growth and expansion.
A college became a university. A campus practically doubled in size, and student enrollment grew with it. A curriculum founded upon the liberal arts was broadened to include one of the most extensive and respected ranges of health science programs in the Midwest.
Yet, even Walker cannot help but marvel at the rapid growth of one such health science-related program-the Kinesiology Department chaired by the longtime educator herself.
"The growth we've experienced in the past few years has truly been incredible-going from 50 students four years ago to nearly 400 today," she said. "Things just keep moving on up for us."
It only makes sense that the Kinesiology Department is moving forward. Kinesiology, after all, is the study of human motion-or human "kinetics."
"Kinesiology isn't just about physical activity or how we move, but about the impact the way we move has on our lives," Walker said. "Many students aren't exactly clear what kinesiology is, but they are resolute in their desires to make an impact on the lives of others and feel like they can do that through a career in the health sciences."
This year, St. Ambrose will welcome some 60 new students who have declared interest in one of the four majors within the Kinesiology Department-physical education, sports management, human performance and fitness, and exercise science. Walker said the latter two are especially popular with incoming students.
Many new students will have hopes of earning a coveted spot in SAU's Doctor of Physical Therapy program, which continues to be recognized as a top program in the country. This year, more than 500 students applied for one of 36 seats in the DPT program. Other undergraduate kinesiology students will go on to careers in physical fitness, coaching or training, among many others.
Meanwhile, undergraduate enrollment in other health-related fields of study, such as nursing, biology and chemistry, as well as the number of graduate school applicants for physical therapy and occupational therapy, have noticeably spiked in the past four years.
It is growth that could be attributed to America's renewed emphasis on physical fitness-from First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign to television shows like The Biggest Loser.
"But I also think it has to do with the fact that kids have been involved in athletics throughout their lives," Walker said. "And even though some of their athletic careers may end after high school, their ambitions to help themselves and others lead a healthy life do not."
Early and intense athletic specialization also is leading to injuries at a younger age. As a result, children are being exposed to the type of care that a professional athlete might get from a physical therapist. "They experience firsthand what physical therapy can do, and they think, ‘I want to do that,'" said Michael Puthoff, PT, PhD, director of the Doctor of Physical Therapy program.
Sandra Cassady, PhD, dean of the College of Health and Human Services, said the growing interest also results from an awareness young adults gain by watching their parents and grandparents get older-real life experiences and challenges that continue to reinforce the importance and need to live a healthy life.
Then, too, a number of students simply want to help people.
"Much satisfaction can come from helping others obtain optimum health and fitness," Cassady said. "This, coupled with our strong service commitment across the university, is a good match for many of our new students."
Adapt: The Ambrose Way
Growth of the health science programs has forced St. Ambrose to adapt and expand.
"As long as I can remember, we have been creatively using the facilities available to us, whether that is turning a racquetball court in the PE Center into a dance studio, or a classroom in Hayes Hall into a fully functioning kinesiology lab," Walker said. "We make it work. We do whatever it takes to make things good for our students. It's the Ambrose way."
That includes opening the three-year-old Center for Health Sciences Education at Genesis in Davenport. It is home to the Doctor of Physical Therapy program, as well as the Master of Occupational Therapy and undergraduate nursing program, and it offers more laboratory space and access to the technology that students will use after they graduate. The proximity to the Genesis Medical Center-West Campus facility, as well as to the St. Ambrose Children's Campus across the street, also means that students have opportunities to learn in real-world settings.
This summer, a 13,000-square foot addition is underway at the Center for Health Sciences Education, making room for the Master of Physician Assistant Studies program that plans to seat its first class next fall.
Meanwhile, Cassady and others hope the expanding kinesiology program soon will find a home in the form of a new health and wellness center on the main campus.
"Expanding space for recreation will not only serve our health science programs, but will help us in furthering the mission of the university," said the dean. "The integration between what we teach in the classroom and what we offer our students outside of it must always go hand-in-hand."
A new facility would help the Kinesiology Department build on core strengths that are common denominators across the SAU health sciences curricula-outstanding faculty members working together in innovative and ever-adaptive ways.
"Time and time again we survey the applicants to our DPT program, and what continues to be reinforced is that the reason they want to get into our programs is the faculty," said Puthoff. "They see and hear, or have experienced firsthand, how our faculty members are responsive to student needs, and are experts in this field. They understand how current they are in health and wellness practices of today.
"Ultimately, that's why they come here."