Department profile: Kinesiology

P.E. reinvented as kinesiology

by Jamie Kelly

In the past seven years there have been some big changes in the kinesiology department—not least of which is its new name.

Before the 2006–07 school year the department was still called physical education. But even before that things had started to change. At the beginning of the 2003–04 school year, two professors, Ellen Whale and Steve DeVries, made the move from coaching and teaching to teaching full time. The rest of the staff moved to coaching full time. It was a good move, DeVries said, since he and Whale were already headed in that direction. It left the coaching staff free to focus more on recruiting and training, while he and Whale were able to chart a course for the department.

Right now, there are three faculty members in the department, DeVries, Whale and Jennifer Fagenbaum. They split duties, with Whale teaching most of the education prep courses, DeVries handling the psychology of sports and exercise, and Fagenbaum—the newest faculty member—working with the scientific end.

Because of that split, and the new courses the department has been able to offer, they’ve seen more students taking their courses. Before the 1997–98 school year, all students had to take a course on Lifetime Physical Fitness. Once that requirement was eliminated, the department could have been marginalized. But with expanded course offerings, kinesiology professors are attracting students from many other majors.

That, DeVries said, along with the recent addition of Fagenbaum, allows the department to offer more depth, including independent study courses that let students set their own direction. Fagenbaum started as an adjunct in 2007–08, became visiting professor in 2008–09, and was hired onto the tenure track in 2009– 10. DeVries came to Cornell in 1983 and Whale started in 1978.

“Exercise science was the missing piece,” he said. “We just have more to offer now.”

There was a time when a physical education major meant just that: you were prepared to teach physical education. But because of the growth in the field of kinesiology, there are many more options now. Kinesiology majors—there are 66 this year, up from 57 in
2007-08—can teach or coach, of course, but they also can go into occupational or physical therapy, sports management, or any number of health-related fields. (See “Where are they now” for a look at what Cornell’s physical education/ kinesiology graduates are doing.)

Part of the way the department can train students for diverse fields lies in another relatively new addition: the exercise physiology lab in the basement of the Small Multi-Sport Center. There, in what used to be a racquetball court, is a space that serves double duty: as both a classroom and a hands-on lab.

The lab holds thousands of dollars of equipment, including equipment to measure heart rate, respiration, volume of blood being pumped from the heart, and other ways the body reacts to exercise. From there, students can learn what muscles are being used in a given exercise and can recommend the right intensity of exercise for someone.

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