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Karen McKechnie, James McKecknie, Amy Woods
(L-R): Karen McKechnie, James McKechnie, and Dr. Amy Woods

A Celebration of Excellence

Dr. Amy Woods, the first James K. and Karen S. McKechnie Professor in the College of Applied Health Sciences, says a pivotal event in her childhood set her on her career path.


When Dr. Amy Woods was in third grade, school was a place where you were expected to be quiet and inactive. It was 1968, and there was no organized physical education in her elementary school. One day, a day she still remembers vividly, a physical education major from nearby Newberry College visited the class.


“And he stood at the front of the class and said, ‘We’re going to exercise.’ And there was a charge in the air,” she recalled. “That really was a pivotal moment for me.”


That physical education major who led her class in jumping jacks may never know the impact he had on her, but Dr. Woods went on to become a physical education major herself at Winthrop College in Rock Hill, South Carolina. She earned a master’s degree at the University of Tennessee and taught physical education in Newberry, South Carolina, for two years before pursuing her PhD in physical education instruction and curriculum at the University of South Carolina. She joined the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health in 2005 after teaching at Columbia College, St. Olaf College, and Indiana State University, and is currently the head of the department.


Last February, Dr. Woods’ many professional accomplishments were celebrated as she was named the first James K. and Karen S. McKechnie Professor in the College of Applied Health Sciences.


Through her research, publications, invited lectures, and conference presentations, she has become internationally recognized for her work on school-based physical activity and the career cycles of K-12 physical education teachers. Part of her research focuses on the support that is needed to sustain innovative practices in teaching. She also studies factors that contribute to teachers’ self-efficacy, or their belief in their ability to succeed, as well as the power of productive reflection in professional development. Her findings have informed policies and practices in teacher education.


In the Pedagogical Qualitative Research Lab, which she co-directs with Dr. Kim Graber, Dr. Woods is investigating the benefits of recess. “You might look at recess as just an innocuous activity for children,” she said, “but it’s where they get a good bit of physical activity each day.” She is specifically interested in whether recess yields more benefits before or after lunch. Current federal policy encourages physical activity before lunch because children waste less food. But her team’s research into the impact of recess on physical activity, nutritional intake, body fat, and cognitive function calls that policy into question.


Dr. Woods, who is a Fellow of the National Academy of Kinesiology, says her ultimate goal is to help K-12 teachers promote health-enhancing physical activity that keeps children moving as much as reasonably possible in schools.


“We are intensely proud of our connection to this University.”

James and Karen McKechnie graduated from the University of Illinois in 1970, he with a degree in chemistry and she with a degree in physical education. He went on to become an orthopedic surgeon with practices in Mattoon and Urbana-Champaign that were managed by Mrs. McKechnie. As avid skiers and swimmers, they have long known the benefits of physical activity in their own lives. But Dr. McKechnie said that as they age, “We have an increasingly direct appreciation of the role that physical fitness plays in our ability to continue as productive and mentally fit citizens.”


The McKechnies are members of the President’s Council and Chancellor’s Circle, and their support has been enjoyed by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Fighting Illini Athletics, and the University of Illinois library as well as AHS. They endowed the James K. and Karen S. McKechnie Lab of the AHS Center on Health, Aging, and Disability, located in the Khan Annex. Mrs. McKechnie serves on the AHS Board of Visitors.


In endowing the James K. and Karen S. McKechnie Professorship in the College of Applied Health Sciences, they hope to contribute to and continue the longstanding tradition of excellence for which the University is known. Dr. McKechnie lauded Dr. Woods’ selection as the inaugural recipient, saying, “I’ll be eager to learn of the contributions Dr. Woods makes in maximizing our human potential and assisting us with making the most productive, most comfortable, and most enjoyable use of the time that each of us has allotted to us in this world.”

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