Hunter Breon (left) and Richard Carey (right) participate in an exercise physiology lab.

Worth the Wait

Students and faculty reflect on the first four years of Penn State Altoona’s kinesiology program.
By: Marissa Carney

The 2020-21 academic year at Penn State Altoona saw its first class of students graduating with kinesiology degrees—a feat nearly 20 years in the making for the college.

Peter Hopsicker, professor of kinesiology and associate dean for academic affairs at Penn State Altoona, began advocating for a degree program in 2005. In the decade before one was established at Altoona, Frank Zaffino, instructor in kinesiology, consistently heard students wishing they could stay at the campus to earn their kinesiology degrees.

Marena Simington was one of those students. She was prepared to transfer to University Park to finish the major, but in 2017 when the full four-year program kicked off at Altoona, there was no question she would stay. “I was happy with the classes,” she says. “I liked their small sizes and how everyone knows each other. I was able to get to know the professors on a more personal level, too. That's one of my favorite things about Penn State Altoona.”

Excitement was high among faculty members, as well. “The idea that we would be able to see our students through to the end, to see their maturation from their first to senior year, was so gratifying. Very fulfilling,” says Zaffino.

The program found its home in the Adler Athletic Complex, which, in 2017, was newly renovated. With ample classroom space for expanded and added courses, multiple labs, and equipment available for class use, it has the bones of a quality program. Modeled closely after the Penn State Berks program, it has the meat of one, as well.

Nicole Gilbertson, assistant professor of kinesiology, came on board at the two-year mark of the program right when students were ready for exercise physiology and exercise science-related classes.

“It was exciting to come in just as things were really taking off. It gave me the opportunity to provide my level of expertise in classes and offer some thoughts on how to develop the program further.” Gilbertson says that faculty and staff were able to work with the students at the same time, using their feedback to refine courses and labs. “We told them that they were the players, we were the coaches, and we wanted their help to make this program the best it can be.”

Kinesiology at Altoona offers three options within the major: movement science, exercise science with a business emphasis, and exercise science with a science emphasis. Students aren't often sitting in lectures with classes ranging from athletic training and movement psychology to exercise physiology and biomechanics.

“I definitely liked the labs best,” says Bethany Pierce, a spring 2021 graduate. “They were great hands-on experience, and our professors could always connect what we were doing in them to what we’d be doing in a future job setting.”

Hunter Breon (left) and Richard Carey (right) participate in an exercise physiology lab.

Hunter Breon (left) and Richard Carey (right) participate in an exercise physiology lab.

Credit: Penn State

Simington agrees that copious direct engagement is the most valuable part of the program. “We were always in the campus gym doing testing, things like VO2 max testing on the treadmill and 3-RM and

1-RM testing. We did all kinds of assessment labs like body composition and flexibility. We did field tests at Spring Run Stadium. We even went to a local gym where Dr. Gilbertson put us through Olympic weightlifting techniques like learning the smash and the power clean. That was cool.”

Just as nursing students must complete clinicals, kinesiology students must complete observation hours in their chosen facilities. “The hours are over 250, so they are spending a lot of time in a practice or clinical setting,” says Gilbertson. “Being able to do so many hours in different places allows students to get an even better idea of where and how they want to achieve their career goals and objectives.”

Simington credits a combination of classes, observation hours, and her internship with giving her direction on her next steps. “It was my exercise physiology class that made me want to go on to graduate school. Another class helped me decide that I want to work with athletes, and my internship placement at Dorman’s Sports Performance here in Altoona really sealed it all for me. I wasn’t there two weeks before I knew, ‘yep, this is what I want to do with the rest of my life.’”

Takehiro Iwatsuki and Kierra Irwin (right) conduct research in the Motor Learning and Sport Psychology Lab.

Takehiro Iwatsuki and Kierra Irwin (right) conduct research in the Motor Learning and Sport Psychology Lab. 

Credit: Penn State

The option for students to do undergraduate research with their professors is also a valuable learning experience. Currently, Gilbertson uses students as research assistants in her applied exercise physiology lab, while Takehiro Iwatsuki, assistant professor of kinesiology, oversees students in his motor learning and sport psychology lab. Pierce “It’s fantastic to have different professors from different backgrounds who offer the chance to work with them on their research. It’s great experience.”

Outside of the classrooms and labs, students can participate in the Kinesiology Club. Zaffino hopes that as the club grows, members will find ways to promote physical activity on campus and collaborate with Health and Wellness to offer events and activities for the campus and the local community.

Of course, the program's start was not without its challenges, most of which were scheduling issues. But for faculty, seeing how much the program has grown already shows how much potential there is for continued development and expansion. In fact, kinesiology is one of the fastest-growing programs on campus. There are 20 new accepted or admitted students for the fall 2021 semester, bringing the total pursuing the major to over 50.

“I’m proud and looking forward to seeing where we can take the program,” states Zaffino. “It’s an exciting time to be in the kinesiology department as faculty and students, for sure.”

Simington has begun the Lebanon Valley College’s master’s program in exercise science, sports performance option. Pierce is considering graduate school for physical or occupational therapy. Other alumni have taken jobs in corporate wellness, consulting, medical/surgical sales, and personal training. Many others are attending graduate school to become physical therapists, occupational therapists, or physician's assistants.

Looking over her first flock of alumni, Gilbertson is humbled. “It's really special because these students took a chance on us when they came to our new program. They put a lot of faith in us. To see these students who we've worked so closely with graduate from our college and already succeeding is very special.”

“I'm happy about my decision to come to Altoona for my degree,” says Pierce. “At first, I was a little nervous because it’s a new program, but I live to tell that it works and it’s wonderful. I am proud to be part of the first kinesiology class graduating from Penn State Altoona.”