Nov. 20, 2013

Service learning course embraces design and health

Wei-Yen Hsieh, Taylor Bicchieri, Mark Miller, and Ray Bunce.
Mark Vorreuter
From left, Corporal Mark Miller, Lt. Ray Bunce, Wei-Yen Hsieh ’14 and Taylor Bicchieri ’14 discuss the health impacts of the planned expansion to Tompkins County Jail.
Taylor Bicchieri, Wei-Yen Hsieh, and Derek Osborne
Mark Vorreuter
Taylor Bicchieri ’14, left, and Wei-Yen Hsieh ’14 discuss the jail expansion with Tompkins County Undersheriff Derek Osborne.

Cornell undergraduates in a new service learning course are studying the public health impacts of such hot-button local issues as the Tompkins County Jail expansion, a grassroots movement to allow Ithaca homeowners to keep chickens in backyard coops and the potential relocation of the Ithaca Community Gardens.

Student teams in the course join with community partners to conduct health impact assessments (HIA), led by Nancy Wells, associate professor of design and environmental analysis in the College of Human Ecology, and postdoctoral fellow Margaret Demment in the Division of Nutritional Sciences. The HIA process evaluates the potential health effects of a plan, project or policy before it is built or implemented, helping communities make informed choices about improving public health through community design.

From cities and parks to homes and garden plots, students in the class apply perspectives from urban planning, public health, environmental psychology, architecture, landscape architecture, design and community nutrition to explore links among policy, design and health.

“HIA has the potential to infuse decision-making processes with health considerations that would otherwise be neglected in favor of a more economically oriented process,” Wells said. “Interdisciplinary teams are particularly appropriate for HIAs, and we’ve been thrilled to have students from 11 majors and four colleges – perfect for this course.”

Taylor Bicchieri ’14, Wei-Yen Hsieh ’14 and Sheniqua Jeffrey ’14, for example, interviewed Tompkins County Jail officers about how the facility’s recently approved $900,000 expansion might influence the mental and physical well-being of officers and inmates. As part of their final project, the students will make recommendations for occupant health in the renovated facility for the county sheriff’s office to consider.

The project balances the needs of different users, said Hsieh. “That is kind of the crux of the class – addressing the matter of health where health has not been previously considered.”

The team met frequently with Ray Bunce, a lieutenant who supervises the jail, to learn more about the plan to add recreation areas and cells to alleviate overcrowding.

“I know that we at the sheriff’s office need to make sure that the general population has a good understanding of what needs to happen to safely and humanely house inmates,” he said, adding that the students’ input was helpful.

On whether Ithaca city homeowners should be allowed to keep chickens, Emily Blumkin ’14, Cara Janeczko ’14, Diana Glattly ’14 and Josef Gottwald ’14 found that their HIA revealed that there are nutritional and environmental benefits from citizens supplying their own eggs, but also concerns about noise and cleanliness for neighbors.

“Many health care professionals focus on individualistic factors of health, but experiences from this class add to Cornell’s overall focus on population-based health,” Blumkin said.

“The class’s diversity of majors aligns with the point of an HIA – to gain insights from various stakeholders,” added Jacky Choi ’14, who helped examine the health impact of ending the lease of land for the Ithaca Community Gardens. “In our class discussions you have perspective from a public health student, but you are also getting the perspective of students in architecture, urban planning and pre-med. It leads to awesome collaboration.”

The course, Healthy Places: How Design and Planning Affect Public Health, is funded in part by Cornell’s Engaged Learning + Research center, where Wells is one of 14 faculty fellows for 2013.

Dani Corona ’15 is a student communications assistant for the College of Human Ecology.