13:46 PM

A Healthy Exchange

UHD Students Teach & Get Schooled Through Service Learning


By Laura Wagner

The best way to learn is to teach, the saying goes.

UHD students recently discovered the truth of that maxim, among other lessons, after teaching more than 80 K-12 students and their families about nutrition and health science at a UHD service-learning project in Houston’s Northline community.

Led by Dr. Mesias Pedroza, Lecturer of Biology and Chemistry in the Natural Sciences Department, more than 20 UHD students headed to St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church to teach health-related concepts to students and their families at the Learning with Thomas Academy event. UHD students routinely volunteer with food pantry and clothes distribution at the Academy, and books, school supplies, and backpacks were provided at the event, but the focus of the service-learning session was health.

“Our students conducted health science activities and played educational games with the children, including magnet puzzles, science experiments, and reading about nature and the human body,” Pedroza explained. “The goal is to provide valuable information to help these families learn about the growing epidemic of Type 2 diabetes, the prevalence of metabolic syndrome among the Latino community in the U.S., issues surrounding hypertension, and how individuals in that community are disproportionately affected by asthma.”

The student participants were primarily from Pedroza’s biology and biochemistry classes, but students from other UHD colleges joined the project as well.

For Gopakanya “Gopa” Echarry Diaz, the service-learning experience was eye-opening. “Sometimes we take for granted all that we have. Working with these families, I saw parents who show interest in their kids’ futures by taking advantage of opportunities like this to engage.” The Data Science junior added, “At such young ages, it can be hard to get students excited about science, but these kids came to the event enthusiastic and ready to learn!” 

Pedroza has been leading tutoring sessions every semester for the past two years, and added the learning session format to “increase awareness in the community about the primary diseases Latinos face and how to prevent them. Our goal is to help decrease the incidence of these diseases as well as the associated morbidity and mortality.”

UHD’s service-learning programs integrates community service with coursework to “enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.” The UHD students who participated in the Learning with Thomas Academy project, some who have been involved in tutoring there for multiple semesters, confirmed the value of the project in terms of what they learned.

Biology senior Deena Suleiman said, “I was honestly taken aback by how interested the kids were in the topics. Teaching kids about atherosclerosis and the heart seemed a bit tricky, but they were listening and caught on very quickly. I learned how to communicate complex information in a simpler manner for the kids to understand.

According to Social Work junior Veronica Hernandez, “I learned that communicating with patience and encouragement is key. Some of the kids would tear down the entire puzzle when they didn’t get it right and start from scratch, when all they had to do was rotate a certain piece. So just suggesting they analyze it first and talking about what part didn’t fit allowed me to work on my communication skills and patience.” She added, “And I learned that with encouragement, they wanted to keep trying more difficult challenges.”

Biological and Physical Science senior Omar Khan agreed that learning to simplify the concepts for the audience was critical. “Trying to make complex scientific processes and chemical reactions tangible and fun to younger students was enlightening. It helped me understand how to take concepts we learn in our college classes and translate them so that a child could understand.” The results were worth the effort, he added. “Watching their faces get excited about the hydrophobic effect was amazing! And it was challenging—it taught me and the students a lot.”

The learning session was so successful, Pedroza plans to conduct one per semester going forward in addition to the more frequent tutoring sessions. “The community provided great feedback, saying it was informative and enjoyable. They were able to have fun with their kids, obtain different resources, and learn about the diseases that affect the Latino community,” he said. “Families walked away from this event equipped with the knowledge of how to make healthy decisions concerning their diets and lifestyle, such as exercising more and avoiding smoking.”

Diaz noted that one of the most important lessons she learned working with Pedroza and her UHD peers was the value of teamwork: “Having a good team is like having a good community. It provides the environment that allows you to be successful,” she said, “I learn so much from my interactions with those around me.”

Pedroza provides a variety of service-learning opportunities for students enrolled in his courses, although all students are welcome to support the initiatives. Anyone interested in participating in the projects should contact him at pedrozam@uhd.edu for more information.

About the University of Houston-Downtown

The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.

U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.