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NMSU's kinesiology program moves in the right direction

Strides are not just being made within New Mexico State University's human movement laboratories. The kinesiology program, within the Department of Human Performance, Dance and Recreation, is also making advances in terms of enrollment and academic reputation.

Ou Ma on computer, with Robert Wood to his left looking at the monitor.
Engineering professor Ou Ma, left, and Human Performance, Dance and Recreation department head Robert Wood use reflective markers and other imaging equipment to record and analyze the movements of a test subject walking on a treadmill. (NMSU photo)

As one of the fastest growing majors in the country, the demand for solid kinesiology undergraduate education at NMSU has increased exponentially within the past decade.

"Ten years ago, there were 28 students in kinesiology at NMSU. Now there are 400," said Robert Wood, NMSU's human performance, dance and recreation department head.

A multidimensional profession, kinesiology ? the study of human movement ? encompasses a variety of different sub-disciplines. However, most of the students who are entering the program are interested in going into some allied health profession, such as medicine, physical therapy or occupational therapy, according to Wood.

"There's really a wide array of interests on the part of our students, and I think that the heightened interest in the program is really due to two sets of factors: there's external demand and there's internal demand," Wood said.

The external demand is a result of the expected 25-30 percent increase in demand for health care workers who have a high earning capacity. The internal demand is a function of what Wood believes to be the consistent high quality instruction the students receive in the HPDR department.

"The professors are personable, passionate and knowledgeable," said Eryn Murphy, a spring 2013 exercise science graduate ? a component of the kinesiology program. "Kinesiology is a complicated subject, and these professors have such vast knowledge; it is impossible to not be in awe of what they have to offer."

With nearly all kinesiology courses taught by clinically experienced professors who provide high-quality learning environments in classrooms and laboratories, a tremendous growth in the program has been seen.

Human Performance, Dance and Recreation at NMSU began in the 1940s (then called Physical Education, Recreation and Dance) and acted primarily as a service department, meaning they managed the athletic and recreational programs and provided some physical education opportunities for the student body. In general, academics were a secondary focus of the department.

By the 1970s, however, there was a reemergence of the discipline nationwide. As research arose about the correlation between physical activity and health, more and more universities began adopting departments like kinesiology and human movement sciences to better explore the relationship.

"Not until the turn of the 21st century did NMSU look at kinesiology as a vital science," Wood said. "So it's only been about the last 10 or 15 years here, at this institution, where we've seen the discipline emerge as a science."

For this developing discipline, there is more that goes into the program than academic preparation. The students are also active in the community ? volunteering for clubs, organizations, community centers, and health care facilities, taking on leadership roles in those establishments. The department places a high priority on the character that's necessary for a health care worker to be successful.

"To be a frontline caregiver you have to have a lot of empathy. You have to be able to work with people; you have to be understanding and collegial," Wood said. "Our students learn a lot about working together. They have an internship where they go out into work-like situations and they have to work in some high stress situations, so that when they leave our program they feel confident to be successful in any environment."

With these strong academic experiences, the kinesiology students are becoming very competitive for graduate admission into graduate schools and professional degree programs. According to Wood, the students are very well respected at the institutions they're attending, and consequently, more and more NMSU kinesiology students are getting into graduate schools.

Murphy was recently accepted into Western Washington University's Master's of Exercise Science program, where she will begin attending in the fall. "I am one of many, many graduates of kinesiology who are pursuing further education, whether it be physical therapy, occupational therapy, medical school, physician assistant school or other master's programs," she said. "In fact, I can't think of one student in the class of 2013 who isn't going on for more school."

Due to the overwhelming success of the kinesiology focus, the HPDR department presently has a proposal before the state to implement a doctoral program ? a critical constituent to the long-term sustainability of the kinesiology program.

"In our discipline, the strength, the quality of the program that you have is largely a function of what your Ph.D. graduates are going and doing in the academy. And we need the Ph.D. program to shore up, to strengthen and really be the cement that really holds things together," Wood said.

"There are so many things going on that we need to invest our talent in, as far as research and graduate productivity, and that provides the direction for the field," Wood said. "And we need to be engaged in the full mission of the university, which involves research."

While they await the verdict of the graduate proposal, the program has been able to secure some funding for undergraduate research and laboratory equipment. But in order to enhance instructional experiences and be more productive in research involvement, collaborative laboratory efforts between NMSU's mechanical engineering department and the kinesiology program have developed to analyze the gaits of older adults who fall.

In addition to biomechanics, other laboratories explore exercise physiology, motor behavior and increasing physical activity in children ? all in an effort to investigate human movement under the guidance of kinesiology professors.

"The professors in the kinesiology program expect big things from all of us, and they don't let us forget it," Murphy said "Each professor expects nothing but attention, dedication and hard work."

With a hopeful outlook and promising goals for the future of the program, Wood is looking to enhance various aspects of the HPDR department and promote further growth. "We have an amazing department," he said. "We go out of our way to ensure that all of our programs are successful, and it's really a tremendous group of faculty that we have here."