October 28, 2003

Course Keeps Students Healthy

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It probably would not be a good idea to put your feet in the aisle of the David L. Call Auditorium in Kennedy Hall during Nutritional Sciences 115. If you did, you’d be liable to trip the professor.

During his lecture regarding exercise and movement, for example, Prof. David A. Levitsky shed his button-down shirt and jeans, revealing work-out clothes underneath, and sprinted around the auditorium. As the students recovered from the initial shock, Levitsky explained his need to demonstrate the body’s reaction to different intervals of movement as the motive for the sudden demonstration.

Such antics are routine in Levitsky’s Nutritional Sciences 115: Nutrition, Health and Society, a class that consistently packs the auditorium. Listed in the College of Human Ecology, NS 115 is one of the most popular introductory courses at Cornell.

Emily Sauer ’07 explained her affinity for the class: “[The class] is both informative and entertaining.”

“It’s perfect for students that are visual learners because there is always a powerpoint presentation.”

The syllabus for the class explains that its purpose is to “teach a sensitivity and appreciation of good health and behaviors necessary to maintain good health throughout life.”

Levitsky echoed the goals of his course: “I emphasize the elements of good health by providing a broad introduction to all aspects [of nutrition] and integrating them.”

The class proceeds through the semester by addressing many issues related to the hallmark question: “How can I be healthy for the rest of my life?” Subtopics addressed include nutrition and weight control, heart disease, cancer, physical activity and food supplements.

“It’s really the only health class offered at Cornell,” Levitsky said.

After teaching the class for about 15 years, Levitsky is able to captivate the large audience. “It’s certainly a challenge with over 400 students, but I’ve learned to lecture by ear, watching the reactions of the students,” Levitsky said.

He explained a two-pronged strategy for captivating the large audience, in which he combines intellectually important material with computer and visual effects to keep the class interested.

His engaging, friendly lecture style also comforts the students and creates a relaxed atmosphere. He typically begins the lecture by posing a direct question, such as “Why do fat people have a right to be pissed off?” or “Does dieting work for anyone?” Besides easing the tension of the large hall, the questions have relevance to issues reviewed in class.

Another challenge for Levitsky is overcoming the diversity of academic backgrounds of the students. “Only 25 percent of the students are Nutritional Sciences majors,” he explained. However, he does not view this diversity as an obstacle, but as a blessing: “I enjoy teaching introductory courses; it’s rewarding to see students’ eyes light up as they understand that what their mother said [about healthy eating] was right.”

In fact, Levitsky himself has a diverse academic background, as a professor of Nutrition Science and Psychology. He explained that the entire Department of Nutritional Sciences is an “umbrella of interests.” Also, he enjoys teaching non-science majors “why science is so great.”

In addition to the lectures, special events help to make the class seem more personable to the students. Prof. Levitsky holds a periodic section called “Cooking with Dave” where he demonstrates the finer aspects of healthy cooking, and shows the students that this is easy to accomplish. Also, the students can sample his meal at the end of class.

On the Monday before Thanksgiving, the entire class meets for a “feast” where the TAs cook healthy dishes that are new to most students. After the meal, they participate in some sort of exercise. Past activities have included square dancing, aerobics and African dancing. “I try to show the students that what I present in class is practical and applicable,” Levitsky said.

He also attempts to dispel dietary and nutritional myths in a session he calls “Dave’s dietary delusions.” Presenting sneaky advertising techniques, he warns the class about lies spread through the media.

By using these special segments, Levitsky keeps the students interested and excited about the material he presents. In fact, Sauer — a Fine Arts major — described the class as “easily one of [her] favorites, well-worth the course work.”

Students are evaluated through two prelims, a final and a term paper. Additionally, they are required to log their food intake for two days. Then, they must analyze their diet using a computer program. By being more aware of their own diets, Levitsky hopes to foster permanent nutritional habits for every student.

Perhaps through creative and clever techniques, one professor’s charismatic personality and an intellectually interesting topic, Levitsky’s Nutritional Sciences 115 grew from its initial size of 70 to the current enrollment of over 400 students representing all of the colleges. It is one of the most popular science lectures, and one of the most distinctive courses at Cornell.

Even students who have taken the class in the past have fond memories of it. Alison Paskert ’06, who took the class last fall, remembered, “The time when Prof. Levitsky was teaching about exercise, and he stripped down to his boxers and ran around the auditorium. That sure got my attention!” she said.

Archived article by Steve Angelini