Students won’t find monotonous lectures with rote memorization assignments in Laura Acosta’s dietetics courses at the University of Florida. Instead, dietetics majors find themselves engaged in memorable, meaningful learning experiences, such as conducting mock nutrition interviews, creating educational videos and debating nutrition “hot topics” with international students.
Acosta was honored for her teaching acumen by being named the 2019 UF Undergraduate Teacher of the Year this spring. As a lecturer in the UF/IFAS food science and human nutrition department, she instructs the Nutrition Counseling and Communication, Medical Nutrition Therapy, and Nutrition and Disease courses and also works with dietetic interns in the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) master’s program.
“I absolutely love what I do, and being able to have the opportunity to work with students and foster the knowledge of the next generation of dietitians brings me so much fulfillment,” Acosta said. “To be recognized for that is just icing on the cake. More than anything, I feel humbled and so grateful.”
Acosta entered the academic teaching profession after managing her own fitness studio and nutrition private practice. Through hosting workshops for fitness instructors to gain certification, Acosta realized she enjoyed connecting with her students and sharing knowledge.
“I had a mentor who made information come alive for students, and that’s when it clicked for me,” Acosta said. “She helped me to see teaching is less about me trying to feed information, and more about facilitating a process for students to explore and discover knowledge on their own.”
As a student’s likely first encounter with clinical dietetics, Acosta is well-known for her innovation in the classroom. Her interactive lessons and assignments incorporate new technologies, field trips and service-learning projects, such as shadowing clinical dietitians and practicing nutritional assessments at local high schools.
A popular teaching technique for health-related majors is the inclusion of simulation in curricula, such as a physical simulation lab with mannequins for medical students or computer-based simulations. Recently, Acosta developed a new course involving an interactive case study and virtual simulation module to teach undergraduate students nutrition-focused physical examination skills.
A favorite topic Acosta’s students enjoy in her Nutrition Counseling and Communication course is the lesson on sharing nutrition messages. Students are tasked with creating a YouTube video that contains factual information and resonates with the average person. Senior dietetics students Kathryn Ramos and Michael DiBattista even developed a grocery shopping rap!
“Mrs. Acosta has many strengths, but I feel the most valuable is her ability to motivate students to learn and grown both in and outside the classroom,” said Amanda Young, one of Acosta’s former dietetics students and a CALS graduate. “Many assignments utilized multiple learning styles, and often incorporated technology.”
Coming to class with a student-centered mindset is important, says Acosta. Constantly thinking, “It’s not about me; it’s about the experience the student has in the classroom,” is what drives her innovative spirit. When developing lessons, Acosta lets the material “simmer” before looking at it through the lens of a student to see what will hook them, make them care and be engaged.
Acosta credits her lesson-plan creativity to professional development opportunities within CALS. She attends the annual CALS spring teaching retreat, CALS teaching enhancement symposium, UF Office of Teaching Excellence workshops and completed CALS teacher’s college when she first arrived in 2014.
“I take advantage of as many opportunities as I can to enhance my teaching through CALS and UF,” Acosta said. “I can’t overstate how valuable that is to learn and get inspired. I always think of how an idea from a presenter can work for me and my students.”
Currently, Acosta is developing a collaborative course with faculty in the UF/IFAS food and resource economics department that will open in spring 2020 and will be available to any sophomore at the university as part of the UF Quest program. Her class called “Feeding the Planet: Nutrition, Sustainability and the Economics of Eating” will address feeding our future global population. Students can expect to discuss the question: “How can we feed a growing global population in a healthful, economically-feasible and environmentally responsible way?”
In addition to the UF teaching award, Acosta was recognized with a CALS award along with the following UF/IFAS faculty and staff members were recognized:
- Laura Acosta, lecturer in the UF/IFAS food science and human nutrition department, was named an Undergraduate Teacher of the Year.
- Raelene Crandall, assistant professor in the UF/IFAS school of forest resources and conservation, was named an Undergraduate Teacher of the Year.
- Cynthia Hight, academic program specialist in the UF/IFAS agronomy department, received the Excellence in Graduate Program Support Award – a new award this year.
- Amie Imler, former academic adviser and currently a lecturer in the UF/IFAS animal sciences department, was named an Undergraduate Adviser of the Year.
- Anne Mathews, associate professor in the food science and human nutrition department, received the Graduate Teacher/Advisor of the Year Award.
- Dale Pracht; associate professor in the UF/IFAS family, youth and community sciences department; was named an Undergraduate Adviser/Mentor of the Year.
The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) administers the degree programs of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). The mission of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences is to deliver unsurpassed educational programs that prepare students to address the world’s critical challenges related to agriculture, food systems, human wellbeing, natural resources and sustainable communities. The college has received more total (national and regional combined) USDA teaching awards than any other institution. Visit the CALS website at cals.ufl.edu, and follow CALS on social media platforms at @ufcals.