Billstrom picks greenway usage as topic of Senior Study

Billstrom picks greenway usage as topic of Senior Study

Aug. 15, 2016


Gabrielle Billstrom’s initial interest in the physical activity levels of senior citizens has the potential to benefit generations of Blount Countians.

Billstrom, a senior exercise science major at Maryville College, is conducting a Senior Study that looks at who uses the Maryville-Alcoa Greenway System – when, how and why.

One of the distinctive features of a Maryville College education, the Senior Study requirement calls for students to complete a two-semester research and writing project that is supervised by a faculty member. Students choose a research topic informed by their major and often one that is closely related to their career choice.

“Dr. [Jeremy] Steeves is my thesis advisor, and he had a bunch of different ideas for a Senior Study, and he mentioned this one. I wanted to expand on it and figure out different geriatric and elderly adult information, as well,” Billstrom explained. “More than just who uses it and why, I’m interested in how [greenways] affect the elderly community.

“I’m interested in occupational therapy, so anything that helps improve the wellness of elderly adults … and get people outside and more physically active ties to my career goals.”

For 12 days this summer and at three different times of day (morning, noon and evening), Billstrom, Steeves, sophomore research assistant Colby Beach, and several other research assistants (Maryville College students and professors from MC and the University of Tennessee-Knoxville) pitched their tent in two different greenway locations – Springbrook Park in Alcoa and Sandy Springs Park in Maryville – and encouraged users to take their 10-minute survey either in person or online. The researchers also have asked people to wear pedometers for the duration of their greenway visit so that they can study physical activity levels.

As of Aug. 10, more than 380 of the 400 needed surveys had been completed. Nearly 80 (of the 100 needed) had strapped on pedometers.

“This is a very friendly and Southern atmosphere,” Billstrom said during a recent morning interview at Sandy Springs Park. The Cummings, Ga., native continued: “Everybody is willing to talk, willing to participate. We have a lot of [Maryville College] alumni stop because they understand the thesis process.

“People are just willing to give their opinion on the greenway. They don’t want to see the greenway taken away, but they’d love to see improvements from the parks and recreation department.”

Research will help Parks & Rec

First developed more than 40 years ago by the cities of Maryville and Alcoa and managed by the Maryville-Alcoa-Blount County Parks and Recreation Commission, the nine-mile paved greenway trail connects numerous parks and schools in Alcoa and Maryville.

Joe Huff, executive director of the commission, said he and his staff know that the trails are great places for community members to get out, get exercise and enjoy the outdoors, but data is crucial for maintenance and planning.

“This study will help us tremendously,” he said. “We did one years ago, and we’ve always talked about doing another one, so when Dr. Steeves called about this, I was pretty excited.

“We receive a lot of positive feedback about the greenways,” the director continued. "We know they’re popular but we’d like to know, number one, demographics – where [users are] from, their age.  That’s great information for us, as far as deciding what amenities to add.”

In addition to demographics, Huff said the survey will provide his department with information about areas that need to be addressed – whether it’s tree roots that are making the paths uneven or the availability of restrooms along the trails.

“We want to hear from the community so that we can make their experience better on the greenways.”

Another goal of Billstrom’s study is to shine a light on the greenway and provide an opportunity to promote its use to non-users. 

“We know there’s an epidemic of inactivity and obesity in North America,” said Steeves, assistant professor of exercise science. “Greenways are a convenient, cheap, safe environment for people to combat both obesity and inactivity. They allow users to get outdoors and engage with their community members while receiving some great physical activity and nature benefits.

“I think it’s important for the community to realize – and to get the word out – what a treasure [Blount Countians] have so close to home.” 

Early findings

Billstrom and Steeves will spend the fall 2016 semester compiling and analyzing the data, but they already have noticed patterns.

“In the morning, it’s predominately runners, but in the evening, we see Pokémon Go players; we see families; we see people on bikes, walking, jogging,” Steeves said. “So you can see with those examples how many different sorts of people are using this greenway system, and that’s really exciting to be able to document.”

All ages are represented on the greenway. Steeves uses the term “cradle to grave,” mentioning mothers who push their babies in strollers to 91 year-olds who exercise on the trails three or four times a week.

They’ve found that the vast majority of users make their way to the greenway for physical activity, but several use it to get to work or school.

And while some users only have to walk across the street from their driveway to access the greenway system, Billstrom and Steeves have surveyed several who drive miles to get to the trails.

“We have people who come from Knoxville, from Seymour and from Greenback to use this greenway on a regular basis,” Steeves said. “Collecting this data allows us to put a number and quantify how many people actually use this resource in the community.” 

Master’s thesis-level study

Billstrom, Steeves and Beach have each logged more than 90 hours on the Maryville-Alcoa Greenway this summer. The assistant professor said the time commitment and quality of the study are more in line with the expectations of a master’s thesis than an undergraduate one.

He pointed out that some of the survey was modeled on a similar study conducted by a graduate student at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who was interested in the usage of the Lakeshore and Third Creek greenways. (Steeves became aware of it while studying for his doctorate at the university.)

“Gabby and Colby have been rock stars throughout this,” he said. “It’s been an honor to work with them and some other undergraduates who’ve helped, as well.”

Last semester, Billstrom’s study, officially titled “Maryville-Alcoa Greenway: A Descriptive Epidemiology of Users and Physical Activity Behaviors,” was awarded $1,500 from Maryville College’s Naylor Fund, which helps support joint faculty-student research projects that “will extend the stream of knowledge within a given discipline or will encourage interdisciplinary learning.”

With the money, the research team was able to buy pedometers, a tent, tables, chairs, signage and supplies and hold gift cards drawings that encouraged survey participation.

When completed, Billstrom’s study and findings will be presented to the Maryville College community, the Maryville-Alcoa-Blount County Parks and Recreation Commission, and possibly other stakeholders.

Steeves is recommending her for an oral or poster presentation at the Southeast Chapter of the American College of Sports Medicine ( meeting in Greenville, S.C., next February. He is also looking at publishing opportunities in scholarly journals dedicated to exercise science.

Billlstrom plans to enter graduate school in occupational therapy after graduation.

Maryville College is a nationally-ranked institution of higher learning and one of America’s oldest colleges. For more than 200 years, we’ve educated students to be giving citizens and gifted leaders, to study everything, so that they are prepared for anything — to address any problem, engage with any audience and launch successful careers right away. Located in Maryville, Tennessee, between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the city of Knoxville, Maryville College offers nearly 1,200  students from around the world both the beauty of a rural setting and the advantages of an urban center, as well as more than 60 majors, seven pre-professional programs and career preparation from their first day on campus to their last. Today, our 10,000 alumni are living life strong of mind and brave of heart and are prepared, in the words of our Presbyterian founder, to “do good on the largest possible scale.”