For Dr. Sean Bulger, physical education isn’t just a passion–it’s his calling.
When asked why he chose WVU for his doctoral degree, the answer was simple.
"The reputation of WVU’s College of Physical Activity and Sport Science and the faculty is what interested me initially but the fact that WVU is a land grant institution is what really sold me. I wanted to make a difference by focusing on outreach and community health and I knew this would be the perfect place to do that."
Dr. Bulger couldn’t have chosen an area with a more desperate cry for help in terms of physical activity and obesity levels. West Virginia is currently tied with Alabama as the second fattest state in the U.S. with an obesity rate of 35.6 percent. This is just slightly below the number one spot which is held by Louisiana with an obesity rate of 36.2 percent.
Children’s physical activity is what has inspired Dr. Bulger for many years and is the motivation for his current grant-funded initiatives. "When you look at the different opportunities to get children to make healthy decisions and be physically active, schools are a really important setting because that’s where kids are spending most of their day."
Dr. Bulger’s grant-funded program called CHOICES (Children’s Health Opportunities Involving Coordinated Efforts in Schools), is one of the ways that Bulger and his team are working to teach West Virginia youth healthy habits that will later translate into adulthood. In Greenbrier County, W.Va, the geographical boundaries of the area make it difficult for young children to participate in physical activities or even walk safely in certain neighborhoods. Those challenges didn’t stop Dr. Bulger.
"For this program, we wanted to focus on developing something that was geographically and culturally relevant to the area. Equipping kids with the knowledge and skills they needed to be physically active in that area of the state meant teaching more non-traditional activities. Things like mountain biking, slacklining, hiking and archery are things that really make sense for the middle of West Virginia."
He didn’t stop there. The CHOICES program was also implemented in McDowell County, W.Va where the focus became more about incorporating physical activity and movement throughout the entire school day.
"A lot of schools are struggling to find a balance between academic expectations and physical activity. Administration realize the importance of physical activity, but it often becomes more of a logistical issue when fitting it into an already busy school day."
Bulger stressed the importance of a comprehensive approach like the one used in McDowell County CHOICES. This type of approach focuses on movement in the classroom and lifestyle changes that can happen before and after school to keep kids active all day, even if a physical education class is not always offered.
Of course, these grant-funded programs are not the only thing that keep Dr. Bulger busy. Teaching and sharing ideas with the next generation of physical education teachers is something that also really excites him.
"One of the things that’s really great about our online master’s program is the fact that these folks are already out in the schools teaching. They come into our program with a different lens because they have moved past that early survival stage as a teacher and now they want to learn how to make their programs better from the perspective of student learning."
Dr. Bugler described WVU’s online Master of Science in physical education teacher education as a "community of practice." Students in the program come from all over the country and share ideas of what has worked and what hasn’t worked for them in terms of teaching their own classes. He even joked that the faculty at CPASS probably take away just as much from those interactions with the students as the students take from them.
As far as the myth of teaching online being difficult, Dr. Bulger was quick to put that misconception to rest.
"These students are taking what they are learning and applying it directly to their own classes in the communities where they live–no matter how far away that may be. Real world application couldn’t be more effective here."
Students in the online master’s program also come to WVU for in-person residencies that last two weeks over the course of three summers. During this time, students get to learn using a more hands-on approach and finally meet fellow students and the faculty that they interact with virtually on a daily basis. This is undoubtedly where the sense of community described by Dr. Bulger is made even stronger.
But what is Dr. Bulger’s biggest source of pride? When his students decide to stay. Some of the online master’s students decide after completing the online program that they want to come to WVU to earn their Ph.D. His reaction?
"If my students are crazy enough to continue on and get their Ph.D. it means they are passionate and that I’ve done my job."