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Research provides insight to relevant physical education activities

A doctoral student from Ireland is gaining a better understanding of her physical education research findings with assistance from a New Mexico State University professor.

Participating in NMSU's Study Abroad program, Eimear Enright came to the university for the semester from the University of Limerick, Ireland. Her doctoral study focused on a participatory action research (PAR) project in Ireland. She worked with 40 girls, ages 15-17, to help them design and evaluate their own physical education curriculum.

Because areas of their research overlap, Enright came to NMSU to work with Kimberly Oliver, an associate professor in the College of Education's Department of Human Performance, Recreation and Dance. Last year, as part of a Carol M. White Physical Education Program Grant through the Department of Education, Oliver studied the barriers keeping young girls in Las Cruces elementary schools from participating in physical activity, and worked with them to help overcome those obstacles.

"Kimberly Oliver is considered an international expert in the areas of curriculum development, critical inquiry and participatory work with youth in physical education. It was her work that initially inspired me to do the type of work I do, so I was very excited at the opportunity to work with her," Enright said.

Oliver has helped Enright understand and analyze her research and has provided feedback on her dissertation. Enright also supervises two student teachers and is a teacher's assistant for three courses taught by Oliver.

"I wanted to get a feel for a different physical education teacher education program and a different university and to spend some time in primary and secondary schools to see how the education system in a different country compares to the Irish system," Enright said.

The PAR project was a collaboration between the PE PAYS Research Centre at the University of Limerick and the Presentation Secondary School, and was a response to girls' disengagement from physical education and physical activity, which was identified as one of the greatest challenges physical education teachers faced.

Enright and other researchers working on the project first had the students participate in activities such as photography, scrapbooking and creating timelines to encourage discussion about their views of physical education and activity. The girls then decided what their ideal physical education would be like and began to work toward that goal.

In doing this, the researchers found that it wasn't that the girls didn't want to be physically active; they just didn't find their school's traditional physical education program of competitive team sports to be meaningful or relevant.

The activities the girls chose reflected this data. The students chose activities such as aerobics, boxercise walking, Khai Bo and going to the gym.

The students continue to design and evaluate their own physical education curriculum and physical activity club with their school's physical education teacher.

"It was very important for us that structures be put in place that would ensure the sustainability of the initiative and would continue to recognize the students as decision makers and critical players in the construction of curriculum," Enright said.

The students have become regional and national advocates for increased student involvement in decision making. They have presented at a national physical education conference in Ireland and a research poster they created was recently accepted for presentation at the American Educational Research Association conference in San Diego in 2009.

Enright was awarded a scholarship by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences. The Irish Teaching Council also awarded her a grant to support her visit. Her doctoral supervisor is Mary O'Sullivan, who was an assistant dean at Ohio State University before returning to the University of Limerick.