It's no mystery that being physically active is tied to public health. But how well do urban planners build communities to encourage a walk to the grocery store or a bicycle ride to work?
In her Active Transportation class, public health professor Sheila Janofsky and her students explore the ways the built environment helps or hinders physical activity as a means of getting places, rather than for pure recreation. Her assignments have gotten students outdoors and actively learning — and now their work is being used to improve our own built environment.
Last spring, the class worked with the local nonprofit Get Outdoors Nevada (GON) to collect information on the conditions at local trails. They used a data collection tool to document the environment at the trails and presented their results to urban planners.
How did the idea for this class evolve?
Get Outdoors Nevada actually reached out to UNLV's office of community engagement, who then reached out to me because their request was a good fit for the content I teach in Active Transportation. After a couple of meetings to refine the idea, we moved ahead.
The data was collected and analyzed by one of our public health seniors, who needed to complete a capstone project. Then, we presented a report to the Regional Open Space and Trails Workgroup (ROST), which advises the county on trails and other open spaces in our area. We are continuing the project in this semester’s class as well.
What did the students do on the project?
The students completed training on trail safety and the use of the data collection tool, then visited a trail of their choice. They collected data on four trail segments, including information on trail amenities, conditions, and possible maintenance needs. They entered their data into an electronic form, then recorded a short video of their experience (which was shared on Get Outdoor Nevada social media accounts).
All 25 students in the class participated in the project, plus our senior working on her capstone project. All the students that semester were undergrads, but the course is cross-listed and does have graduate student enrollment some semesters.
What did they discover through the project?
First of all, many of the students discovered trails near their homes!
The students used Neon to Nature, an app developed by the Southern Nevada Health District, to select their trails for this project. They also learned about the data collection process and the need for nonprofit organizations to support their efforts with data.
We also learned that the majority of the trails we assessed were in good to excellent condition with gentle slope grades, which makes them accessible to many different kinds of trail users. Also, 96 percent of the trail segments had emergency call boxes available, and the students reported minimal amounts of litter and vandalism at these community facilities.
Tell us about the community organization that served as your partner. What was its need?
Get Outdoors Nevada is a nonprofit dedicated to encouraging Nevadans and visitors from all backgrounds and ages to visit and enjoy the state’s diverse outdoor places. To this end, they pursue a three-fold approach of education, service, and community engagement. Many of their efforts and programs focus on the needs and lives of families and schoolchildren, especially those who are at-risk and often have limited opportunity to experience the great outdoors.
How did Get Outdoors Nevada interact with you and the students?
Get Outdoors Nevada did a wonderful job of supporting the students in this work! Their volunteer project director, Almendra Johnson, visited our class virtually to explain the organization and their need for data on trail conditions, especially with the increase in trail use during the pandemic. She was also willing to let students choose the trails they assessed, which was very helpful.
After the data was collected and analyzed, Almendra also sponsored a presentation to the ROST workgroup by the student who analyzed the data, which was important experience for her, too.
What did you do with the data?
After analysis, the data was delivered to Get Outdoors Nevada. Their team helped to distribute the data to appropriate professionals in the various jurisdictions in Southern Nevada. The BSPH senior completing her capstone project was also able to present the information to the ROST workgroup. She has also submitted the data to a public health conference for a presentation this spring.
The representatives from the various jurisdictions were really pleased to have this very specific data about trail conditions in their areas and were thankful that Get Outdoors Nevada and the students collected it. They were also reassured to hear that most of the trails were in very good condition.
What will happen next?
For now, we are waiting to hear about the poster that our student submitted. As the project repeats every year, we will be able to learn about changing conditions on the trails. I'd also like to start connecting this data about trail conditions to the levels of pedestrian traffic at these facilities, but I'll need a bit more time and money to work on that!
There are lots of trails — how long do you think the project will last?
Well, my first instinct was to say that it will last as long as I'm teaching the class! But the usefulness of the data is a really important part of the project, so I guess it will last as long as I'm teaching the class and it continues to help Get Outdoors Nevada accomplish their mission.
Why do you like to teach service-learning courses?
For two reasons. First, I really enjoy offering students the opportunity to complete projects that impact our community. I've found that they are more involved and interested when their work connects to our community and has some impact on the world around us.
Also, there are so many great organizations in Nevada that are doing important work but may need some data to support their efforts. Working with a community partner on a project like this helps both students and our community partners.