Laura McKnight can thank squeamishness and a love of cooking for leading her to her future career.
Interested in the medical field, a young McKnight quickly learned that dealing with blood and guts wasn’t her strong suit. When she discovered dietetics, a combination of two of her favorite things, she knew she’d found her niche.
“I loved the medical profession and I loved food, so when I found out that dietetics was an option, it was like ‘Wow, I think I should do this!’” McKnight said. “It was a perfect fit.”
Over thirty years later, the dietetics instructor and program director has been honored as the region’s 2017 Outstanding Dietetic Educator for a Didactic Program in Dietetics.
The award recognizes teachers and mentors of excellence in dietetics education programs accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics. Only 22 educators in the country have received the recognition.
Char Byington, dietetics faculty member and McKnight’s former student, nominated her for the award.
“Laura is the kind of educator who inspires her students to work at their top abilities,” Byington said. “She offers them numerous opportunities outside of the classroom for experiential learning, and probably her most compelling attribute is her compassion for every one of her students. They all know how much she cares for them.”
McKnight began teaching at ISU in 1994, returning to campus after graduating in 1987.
Her approach to dietetics instruction focuses on practical, experiential and learning. Her students complete hands-on projects more often than papers, and McKnight encourages them to become involved in the community.
For example, students regularly present at health fairs and have worked with schools and food banks in the area to teach nutrition concepts. McKnight’s instruction incorporates classroom learning with practicing real-life skills, such as the equipment operation, sanitization and food preparation involved in institutional food service.
“We are able to provide those experiences for the students, and I really think that makes a huge difference,” she said. “They connect the classroom with what’s happening in the community, so they can apply it.”
McKnight attributed the dietetics program’s success to the skill and diversity of its faculty.
She credited Cynthia Blanton, Allisha Weeden, Ruth Schneider and Byington for their expertise and dedication in teaching students.
While the Outstanding Dietetic Educator award recognizes McKnight’s efforts in teaching, it’s the administrative side of her job that allows the program to function.
After nine years as director of dietetic programs, she admits the paperwork isn’t her favorite part.
Orchestrating the inner workings of the program involves extinguishing many metaphorical fires and sometimes takes energy from her teaching.
But McKnight acknowledges the importance of that aspect of education and strives to create the best dietetics program possible.
“I’m really passionate about the students and their learning,” she said. “It makes me determined to try to work through the administrative problems so that we have a solid program … I’m going to make sure our people are taken care of.”