At Geri Spears' table at the Beltsville Community Center in Maryland, you can throw small sheep into buckets and earn a prize. Danielle Balsam and Jen Shapiro hand out pocket-sized food-portion guides at their booth. And Meredith Zanelotti gives out a free sample of dark chocolate, while Khaleila Iwuoha performs a free blood-pressure screening at their table.
All are students in the Principles of Community Health I class taught by Sharon M. Desmond at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. Every semester, Ms. Desmonds students put on public health fairs at locations in the community.
The first of this academic year occurred Thursday at the Beltsville Community Center. Ms. Desmonds other section of this class will put on another health fair at Gwendolyn Britt Senior Activity Center in Brentwood on Nov. 10.
Usually , students have the whole semester to work on their projects, Ms. Desmond said. This year, however, the students had only six weeks to complete their projects.
"This is rushed," Ms. Desmond said, "Beltsville wanted us to do it now so they could do the flu shots. Usually, we have 15 weeks."
Last year, the health fair was able to give out 200 flu shots, but because of poor weather, the numbers were down last week.
Joe Fuchs, treasurer of the Beltsville Recreation Council, said flu shots were the original impetus for the health fair. But the council wanted to figure out "what we could do for seniors and the community, in terms of a health program," he said. "We had flu shots, and thats it."
So six years ago, Mr. Fuchs approached Ms. Desmond at the university and she agreed to help. "It grew out of wanting to have flu shots, and it expanded," Mr. Fuchs said. "Its really turned out to be quite a community event."
Now the flu shots are just one small part of the health fair.
Also in the gym at the community center on Thursday were representatives from the Lions Club conducting hearing tests, Golds Gym staffers signing up new members and the Prince Georges Police Department offering safety tips. In the center of all the activity, however, were the student projects.
"Students talk to community members about their health issues, hold focus groups and look at data," Ms. Desmond said. "Then they choose their topics."
They also speak to key community leaders, area doctors and focus groups to determine which issues are affecting those likely to attend the health fair.
After choosing a topic, students conduct research, create a display and prepare materials to distribute at the fair. Many try to incorporate interactive components to draw people in or to make the issue more relevant to someone's daily life.
Ms. Zanelotti, a junior at Maryland, and Ms. Iwuoha, a senior, were kept very busy by the number of visitors to pass through their booth, which focused on heart disease - the No. 1 cause of death in the United States. The two took blood-pressure readings, handed out gift bags with information geared toward women and administered a heart-health quiz to test the knowledge of event patrons about what they can do to manage their health.
"A lot of people are shocked to find out about heart-healthy foods," said Ms. Zanelotti, adding that she emphasized that dark chocolate and almonds can be good for cardiovascular health when eaten in moderation. She also said the participants "seem genuinely interested in learning about heart-healthy habits."
At another table, Ms. Spear, a senior, discussed how prevalent insomnia is, affecting as it does 90 percent of Americans at some point in their lives. At her booth, fair-goers could throw small sheep into buckets worth different point values. Eight points, representing the eight hours of sleep everyone should get each night, earns homemade cookies. The game was based on the fact that many insomniacs try to count sheep to induce sleep.
But Ms. Spear said its not all about fun and games. "As a public health major, one of our primary goals is education and prevention," she said, "And theres no better way to educate than at a free health fair, where people offer their services for free."
Ms. Spear said the fair is about letting people "take control of their own lives and health by educating themselves."
Ms. Balsam and Ms. Shapiro, both juniors, sponsored a booth on health and fitness, which featured an opportunity to explore food-portion control. Visitors to the booth were given Cheerios and asked to pour the amount they would typically serve themselves into a bowl. Then this was measured to see how close the actual serving was to Cheerios suggested serving of one cup.
"Were trying to promote weight management," Ms. Balsam said, pointing out that this is different from the often-stressful process of trying to lose weight.
"We were taking it more like you dont have to go to the gym every day," Ms. Shapiro added. "Its the little things you can do like taking the stairs instead of the elevator or walking to class instead of driving. Its about being healthy."
In addition to the information booths, all of the other aspects of the health fair are run by students as well. Publicity, door prizes, facilities management, coordinating with exhibitors, selecting topics and evaluation each have their own committee responsible for making the fair run smoothly.
• Meredith Hulley is a freelance writer, photographer and University of Maryland student.