Health Class is a Sensation

Psychology major Jessie Willson ’19 wins competitive award for her thesis

Josh Cox ’18 | August 5, 2019

What does it mean when a friend says “no” to the offer of a hug but is still smiling? Fourth graders pondered this question in a health class developed by Jessie Willson ’19. At a time when a presidential contender is called out for giving unsolicited shoulder rubs, it is perhaps not surprising that fourth graders are learning about setting boundaries.

Jessie won the Class of ’21 Award for her psychology thesis on health education for elementary schoolers, entitled, “Mindfulness, Consent, Gender Identity, and Sexual Orientation: Health Education in Elementary School.” As part of her research, she taught, and evaluated a health and identity class for fourth graders. The Class of ’21 Award is given to a “creative work of notable character, involving an unusual degree of initiative and spontaneity.”

When Jessie first proposed the idea for the project, her advisor, Prof. Jennifer Corpus  [psychology 2000–] did not think it would be possible to complete such a scientifically rigorous study in such a short amount of time while also satisfying requirements and multiple constituencies at both Reed and the Portland Public School System.

Jessie, however, was up for the challenge. Human sexuality and teaching have been lifelong passions. She gained valuable instructor experience during her domestic study-abroad junior year at the University of Indiana where she taught a number of workshops at the Kinsey Institute, which holds the largest collection of human sex artifacts. She was so excited about her eventual thesis idea that in the summer before her senior year Jessie started preparation of the curriculum with Reed’s Program Manager for Science Outreach, Presence O’Neal. Her goal was to create a curriculum that would meet the updated Oregon Department of Education’s health education standards, which were voted on in 2016 but not yet implemented due to funding deficit.

The innovative curriculum fused general education with creative, inquiry-based additions such as Jessie’s sensations stations. Interactive booths playing with touch, smell, and taste were set up throughout the classroom to teach the children that their experiences, and thus their perceptions, weren’t universal. The taste station, for example, might feature a grapefruit, dark chocolate, and a sour candy. These sensations were purposefully divisive; some students would enjoy some of them and others would not. After playing at each station, students returned to their desks and wrote down a sensation they liked or didn’t like and then brainstormed reasons why another student might have a different opinion. This was used as basis for understanding consent, a foundation that was strengthened through other aspects of the curriculum.

In her nomination, Prof. Corpus explained the awesome implications of Jessie’s work. After six of Jessie’s classes in as many weeks, the fourth graders “showed a significant gain in knowledge about appropriate boundary setting, boundary respecting, and the diversity of gender identities and sexual orientations that exist.” Even more importantly, they showed a much higher ability to “recognize and regulate their own emotions.” A project Prof. Corpus thought could not be done was not only completed but done so with fantastic and monumental results: Jessie’s study demonstrated that “fourth graders are capable of learning about [difficult sex and health education topics], and that advances in social and moral reasoning skills as well as fact-based learning are attainable [as a result of the education].”

Jessie was surprised by the results. She had not necessarily expected the children’s emotional self-efficacy (the ability to recognize and regulate their own emotions) to grow as a result of study. She was most excited, however, about a different finding—one with huge implications. Within the panel of open-ended questions the students answered before and after the study, one question asked “What does it mean when a friend says no to the offer of a hug but is still smiling?” Before the study, half of the students gave answers encoded as extraneous or, more simply, answers that extrapolated beyond the context of what was given. They posited that the hypothetical friend was “being mean,” or “taunting them,” or “pranking them,” or most surprisingly “flirting with them.” After the curriculum, however, only 15% were encoded as extraneous, signaling that a whopping 35% now had a better understanding of boundary setting.

Jessie’s curriculum is now being disseminated through both the Portland Public School System and private schools. She is excited that teachers are interested in the curriculum and hopes to be used as a resource for schools attempting to implement better health and sex education practices.

Tags: Academics, Giving Back to Reed, Students, Thesis