Developing brawn and brains

Correction appended</strong

Tucked in a tiny building on 23rd Street behind Fulbright Hall, behind a door that looks more like an emergency exit than an entrance, lies a small but precious part of the University: the exercise science department.

It is one of seven departments under the School of Public Health and Health Services, offering majors in exercise science and athletic training, as well as concentrations in pre-health professional studies and health and fitness. Between the two majors there are about 100 students, and each program in the department is designed to educate those who want to pursue a career in a health-related field. Oftentimes prospective physical therapists, dieticians and even doctors get their start here learning about the kinesiology, anatomy and physiology of the human body.

But exercise science classes are no “easy A,” as is sometimes believed. Since the department offers classes that are heavily based in science, students in exercise science must also take upper-level biology, chemistry and physics classes to meet the requirements for the major.

Part of this curriculum is a heavy dose of skills training. Classes often have a practical component in which students observe surgeries, learn how to assess a person’s Body Mass Index and lung capacity, and read other vital signs.

In addition, students are required to have six hours of internship experience, and unlike some jobs that consist of filing papers and getting coffee, these are work-intensive.

“[Students] actually get to practice what they do, not just read about it in a book,” said professor Alex Dickman, who is also the internship coordinator for the department.

While the benefits vary from job to job, students in exercise science traditionally have had internships that are both challenging and rewarding in terms of the experiences they provide. According to Dickman, these include shadowing surgeons, working at the National Institutes of Health and even studying sports medicine with the Washington Redskins. A few have gone on to work at GW Medical Center.

And though the numbers make the exercise science major seem tiny, some students appreciate the cordial atmosphere of a small department.

“I believe that its modest size creates an intimate and comfortable environment to learn in,” said junior Mia Sorkin, who is an exercise science major. “All of the faces in my classes are familiar ones, and it’s easier to succeed in a course when you can form study groups with students who you know and with whom you share the same knowledge base.”

Faculty members also get to reap the benefits of a smaller program. For Dickman, the size of the department allows her to be in constant touch with students and their academic needs.

“We know all the students, what their interests are, what internships they should be taking, and they know who’s writing their recommendations. It’s one of the great things about our program,” Dickman said.

The students are also in a particularly relevant major, professor Beverly Westerman said. Concerns about rising diabetes and obesity rates have spurred an increased interest among students to become dietitians.

“The nation is realizing, ‘We’re in a crisis here,’ ” she said.

Even though exercise science majors go on to become physical therapists, athletic trainers and health professionals, the department remains much of an unknown entity at GW. Sorkin attributes this lack of knowledge to the department’s small size and low visibility amid larger programs at the University.

“The exercise science department is small and less known among our University… and somewhat misunderstood” said Sorkin, who added that the electives offered by the department may obscure the difficulty of the core classes required.

Still, for both students and faculty, the department’s modest size detracts neither from its close-knit feel nor from its rigorous curriculum.

“We’re a lost little gem at The George Washington University,” said Westerman.

The article has been revised to reflect the following correction: (Feb. 17, 2009)

The article originally used a male pronoun to refer to professor Alex Dickman. Dickman is female.

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