Lizzy Pope’s UVM Students are Sometimes Bile, Often Viral, and Almost Always Engaged!

Lizzy Pope
Lizzy Pope

Lizzy Pope asks her students to embody bile, triglycerides, or hydrochloric acid, and then they learn about fat digestion as part of a musical which utilizes multiple pop songs to help students remember the science of nutrition. This is just one tactic in her full arsenal of educational tools developed during her nine years as a UVM professor.  She has developed this strategy to keep her large classes such as Fundamentals of Nutrition—which usually enrolls close to 300 students per term—learning the science of nutrition. Getting students engaged in a class this size is a challenge for any faculty member, but Pope has piloted multiple strategies that have led to high levels of student-reported satisfaction with her teaching.

Pope explains that much of her teaching is based on her own, less-than-ideal undergraduate experiences. “I became a professor because my own higher ed experience wasn’t that great. I was a student who probably should have taken a gap year, but I was just like, no I must go to college I must go to the best college I can go to, and then it was a bit of a struggle to adjust to life on my own. I always think that if there had just been one person with whom I could have connected in my first one or two years, like a professor or advisor, that may have really turned around my experience. By junior and senior year, I had made some of those connections and I felt like I had my place, and I felt my purpose a bit more, but my first and second years were pretty isolating. The class that I teach is full of first- and second-year students, and in those years just feeling like someone might care about you, or your interests, or your struggles, or your goals I know can make a big difference. I think that drives the type of class that I want to run.”

“For many students I think college is the first place where you’re more independent so to me, it’s about the knowledge generation and the education that students get, but it’s also just about learning to be who you are in a new place. So supporting students to figure that out is central. Whether that’s through their academics, which is my primary role, but also life is not all academics. Supporting students to reach their goals is a big part of what I try to do. Learning how to think, learning how to think differently about topics that you might not have gotten exposed to. Many of my students haven’t had any nutrition before they come to me, so they haven’t learned anything about it. And so it’s pretty cool to learn something totally new, or to think differently about things you’ve already learned. It’s developing your critical thinking and information connoisseur skills that are so important in today’s world, which is filled with misinformation everywhere, especially in the science realms. You have to learn what is good science.

“During my doctoral research and post-doc research I was really into studying behavioral economics and health behaviors, or how forces shape people’s mostly unconscious decisions making around health. But now I’ve done kind of an entire career change in my current work, and now my research is on weight inclusivity, which is the idea that weight is not a primary indicator of health, and that by seeing it as such, and seeing “obesity” as a problem, it just drives anti-fat bias and stigmatizing behaviors in healthcare, as well as driving eating-disorder development. My students know about diversity equity and inclusion in other realms, but maybe they haven’t thought about how it applies in nutrition. As soon as I introduce the concept, they’re like yeah, of course, weight inclusivity. And they feel relieved. Oh, we’re not doing nutrition police in here?  I thought you were just gonna tell me don’t eat this, eat this, be in this weight range, and they are so relieved, and then they’re so jazzed.

“When I’m teaching my nutrition class my teaching philosophy is to help students develop a more peaceful relationship with food and their bodies. My goal is to help students think more critically around nutrition, because there’s so much misinformation. Science can ground them in their own sense of knowing and then they understand where they can go for reliable sources to answer their questions about nutrition versus the TikTok influencer or other sources of information that come at you like siren songs.”

Much of Pope’s research has focused on social media’s toxic diet culture and its weight-normative biases.

“I’ve always tried to integrate pop culture into my class and so that took a variety of forms like funny videos or um Twitter memes or whatever you know as the times changed the examples change but now social media is just so ubiquitous and we know that Gen. Z especially is using TikTok quite a bit it’s the most popular social media platform with younger people and so I got really interested in how TikTok shapes nutrition dialogue for this generation.”

But far from banning TikTok culture Pope has embraced it and two of her student stretch breaks, with students doing a flash mob to Taylor Swift videos have gone viral with millions of views, hundreds of thousands of likes and one video even garnering a like from Taylor Swift’s own TT account.


Class stretch break but make it Midnights. #fyp #nfs43 #bejeweled #taylorswift #uvm

♬ Bejeweled – Taylor Swift

Her students have responded very positively to her approach and have repeatedly nominated her for teaching awards. She received the prestigious Kroepsch-Maurice Excellence in Teaching Award in 2018, and in most recently the 2023 Prelock Online Teaching Award, announced at the end of last term.

Pope says being honored with the Prelock Award all stemmed from being forced to teach online during COVID.

“During COVID there wasn’t a physical room capacity limit, so my online class had over 300 people in it. I was like what am I going to do? There’s no way that I can have 300 people on a Teams call twice a week and think that they’re going to pay any attention right? They have enough trouble paying attention when they’re sitting in my classroom, and with COVID there was so much going on for them. So, then I spent the summer before I taught online creating content videos.

“I was acting things out around my house so like when we talked about cells and water I went to my pool and I was like, ‘this is a cell and then like the pool floats were different organelles, and then I’ll like add a soundtrack and there was visuals, and I was like, ‘these are gonna be really good!’ So I taught myself Final Cut Pro and found copyright free music. I was so into it. I think that it could have only happen at the beginning of the pandemic when we weren’t allowed to go anywhere. All summer long I was just so driven to create this set of videos and then my classroom became almost a flipped classroom where my students had these content videos. On Tuesday I did a check-in class. It was totally optional but if you had questions, you could sign on, I would tell you like these are the things we’re going to do for the week. I would get you kind of oriented if that was helpful for you, but again totally optional. And then you have these videos that you could watch at your leisure and could go back could learn from them, and then Thursday we would do intensive iClicker session, so we would actively engage with the material from afar. The students did so well. They were so active in the chat. They were building community in a way that I had not expected, and they really liked the format. They liked the videos and it helped me learn so much about a new approach to teaching.

“The Prelock Award is a validation of all the work that I did to re-imagine that class, and all the format stuff I had to think through. Previously I had four in-class exams and a final project, and that was your grade. I had been getting to the point where I didn’t really feel like that was jiving with my teaching philosophy anymore, but I hadn’t made a switch. That first remote semester forced me to because I couldn’t have in-class exams. So I put a ton of work into the format of the assessments for the class and I teamed up with some other professors at the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), and we formed this choice- based grading group. With the support of the CTL staff we all learned this new method of assessment together. Then we all deployed it in our classes that fall, and then we assessed what students thought about it. Basically it is that the faculty give students choice in how they earn points in the class. So, if they want to complete a bunch of quizzes they can. If they’d rather complete more assignments and fewer quizzes they can do it that way. It’s supposed to help reduce stress and give them more agency. So I redid the grading scheme of the class but to do that I had to make 12 new assignments, 13 new quizzes, entirely new class format, so switching the class to online was like an incredible labor of love. So this award means so much to me because my students recognized that they still learned something. And I’ve taken a lot of what I did while teaching remotely and now use it for my in-person courses. For instance, I still have all the active assignments and the choice-based assessments.

“In academia teaching is not always rewarded. I’m a tenured professor which means that a lot of my incentive is based on my research work, but I love to teach, so that’s why the online class was the epitome of my creative approach to teaching. I did nothing else that entire year. It was a bit of a coping mechanism because it was such a scary time and I’m like, go to my happy place, right? Go to my class, and my teaching work, and I had this great group at CTL, and we were doing this whole thing together around our teaching work which was also research and was cool. I just care so much that my students learn about nutrition in a healthy way.

“The challenge is, how do you build connection in such a large class? How do you make students feel that they’re not just a number? That if they don’t come to class, I will know? Helping students feel connected to the course material by also building a sense of connection to the class, is the core of my teaching philosophy. Our connection to culture, especially pop culture is something that I’ve made an effort to integrate into my teaching too. And sometimes it’s not all that serious. We can have fun right? And we can still learn a lot and sometimes we need to have fun in order to learn.”

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