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Constance Alexander: Commonwealth Honors Academy features forensics, a faceless chicken … and food

According to the website, the Commonwealth Honors Academy (CHA) at Murray State University offers “a rich range of recreational opportunities, cultural and artistic events, outstanding field experiences, and a distinguished convocation of speakers and classroom guests” that enhance the academic curriculum.

With a focus on leadership and service, CHA features a required interdisciplinary Humanities course, as well as an array of electives that include forensics, animal rights, the rhetoric of food, entrepreneurship, visual art and design.

Forensics, a perennial favorite, is the bailiwick of Amy Cox, a Murray resident who teaches in Paducah. This summer her CHA students will get acquainted with some of the giants in the Forensics world, including Dr. William Bass, who established the Forensic Anthropology Center at University of Tennessee/Knoxville in 1987.

Based on the UT model, which is a leading institution for forensic anthropology research and training, Ms. Cox guides CHA participants who elect her course through a process that demands attention to detail, rigorous record keeping, application of the scientific method, and hands-on problem-solving.

One of the highlights is a mini-body farm. During the three weeks of the program, students observe the decomposition of a dead chicken, and apply scientific principles throughout the process.

“It’s a chicken with no face,” Amy is quick to explain, adding that she takes that approach to mitigate squeamish reactions.

“Students see the life cycle of insects as the chicken decomposes,” she said. “They also experience the chemical processes that occur.”

Other Forensics highlights include learning how to manage and document crime scenes.

While some might cringe at the thought, Amy reports that the students have a good time while they are acquiring skills that apply to other content areas. “They have a lot of fun here at CHA,” she said. “And the course always receives high ratings.”

The Rhetoric of Food does not include a dead chicken, with or without a face. When asked what that means, Dr. Danielle Nielsen, the instructor, summarizes her elective with a literary reference: “It means we are going to talk about how we talk about food.”

Talk is not the only way the students get involved, however. In the first week of CHA, the emphasis will be on American food – how we define it, how cultural diversity affects food preferences, and how we use food to define ourselves.

Children of immigrants, according to Dr. Nielsen, often have food experiences quite different from American’s perceptions of ethnic dishes. She went on to mention the ways food is customized in America, giving the example of Subway. The menu offers basic sandwiches which are supplemented by plethora of side choices.

In the second week of Food Rhetoric, students will explore the concept of food insecurity, particularly among young people. According to the National Student Campaign Against Hunger & Homelessness, food insecurity is defined as “the lack of reliable access to sufficient quantities of affordable, nutritious food.”

A study published in 2016 asserts that this uncertainty is common at colleges and universities across the country, potentially undermining the educational success of untold thousands of students.

“College-age students who are commuters and non-traditional students are often juggling rent, child care, jobs. They just don’t have enough resources,” Dr. Nielsen said.

CHA participants in her course will learn about the topic and have the opportunity to see how the food bank works on the Murray State University campus, called Racers Helping Racers, a food pantry stocked by the local Needline organization and MSU.

The culminating food activity will be to create a cookbook with recipes submitted by the students.

Besides the learning opportunities in the required and elective courses, CHA participants receive six hours of university credit, and have the opportunity to take six hours of tuition-free courses at MSU during subsequent fall and spring semesters. If they opt to attend MSU once they graduate high school, CHA alums are eligible for scholarships.

CHA Scholars are chosen form a pool of applicants representing high school juniors throughout Kentucky, as well as the MSU out-of-state service region. All students applying for the Commonwealth Honors Academy should have a 3.5 GPA (on a 4-point scale) and 25 Composite ACT (or the equivalent PSAT, SAT or PLAN score).

For more information, log on to http://www.murraystate.edu/cha/.


Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray, Ky. She can be reached at Calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit her website.

Read all posts by Constance Alexander on KyForward

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