Human Development and Family Sciences Degree: Find Your Area of Interest

July 21, 2022

Connecting children with nature is one interest that may draw students to the Human Development and Family Sciences online degree program.

Roly-polies. Ladybugs. Dirt. Rocks. It's just another spring afternoon for Donia Timby and her students – and a group of curious children joining them on the playground.

"I just love it. Children are getting to smell the fresh air … If you give them a place to explore, they'll explore," she says.

Building on her interest in connecting children with nature. Timby found an area within the field of human development and family sciences that makes her happy – and she helps students do the same as part of her instructor and advising duties at the University of Arkansas School of Human Environmental Sciences.

We spoke with Timby about career possibilities for human development and family sciences majors – including her specialty of working with youth in outdoor settings – and the many ways students can find their paths.


Helping Human Development Students Find Their Way

The field of human development and family sciences is broad, so how do you go about choosing an area of focus? Timby says it starts by finding out what her students are most passionate about.

"In our program, that's helping humans," she says. More specifically, students are usually drawn to a degree in human development and family sciences because they want to work with children or families.

Timby says there are a few ways that U of A helps students find their area of interest within the broader field, including:

  • Academic advising
  • Service learning
  • Internships
  • Elective courses

During our conversation, she provided details on each of these methods and shared insights about one of her favorite topics: childhood development and the natural world.


Finding Your Family Sciences Focus Through Advising

Timby says that most students come into a program like human development and family sciences with a specific career goal already in mind. However, others might still need a little help finding direction. That's where academic advising comes in.

"I get a feel for what they want to do for a career, then bounce ideas off them," she explains. "We'll talk about different areas and opportunities."

Timby adds that she encourages her students, especially online students, to ask questions.

"We always say you can reach out to any faculty member at any time. We'll visit with you on Zoom, we can email, we can call," she says. "Communication is important, and we keep those lines open. You're not alone."


Learning About Yourself Through Service Learning

Photo of Donia Timby
Donia Timby

The U of A human development and family sciences program – HDFS – has a built-in service-learning component in many classes. For example, in Parenting and Family Dynamics, students spend more than a dozen hours outside of class immersed in a community organization that focuses on supporting families.

"These 15 hours get students out of their comfort zone and into their communities," explains Timby. While the department has partnerships with several agencies local to campus, online students have the freedom to find a location wherever they live.

Spending time with a community agency helps students gain valuable real-world skills, and it also can reaffirm a career choice – or inspire a different approach.

"The service-learning experience is a big part of helping students find out what they like and what they don't like," Timby says.

One of her online HDFS students who lives in the Memphis area chose to do her service-learning hours with a hospice care organization.

"Her grandfather had been through the hospice experience for an extended time, so she was inspired to help others going through the same thing," says Timby. "She'd go and sit with patients so their family members could take a break."

Timby added that this student noticed that one of her patients could never seem to find the TV remote control, so she found a pattern for a fabric remote holder and sewed one for him – and then did the same for other patients.

During the COVID-19 pandemic when in-person interaction wasn't ideal, the HDFS program adapted its approach to service learning, not just to continue giving students a learning experience, but also to provide a valuable service to the community.

"This was a time when families and children needed the most support, so we found a way to do it online," Timby explains. "One way we did this was through reading books. Our students read books, and we shared the recordings with parents."


Getting Career Experience Through Internships

In addition to service-learning opportunities, students can also gain hands-on early childhood development experience through an internship.

"Students can go into an internship with an open mind and take this opportunity to learn about an organization," she explains. "They can also usually quickly decide if this is a setting or direction they'd like to pursue after graduation."

Timby adds that students often make such a good connection with a service-learning site that they continue with that same agency or organization for their internship.

"Making those relationships – that's one thing I like to help our students do," she adds.

"Our online students are coming from everywhere. They are attracted to our online programs because of the advantage of online learning. But "Students can go into an internship with an open mind and take this opportunity to learn about an organization," she explains. "They can also usually quickly decide if this is a setting or direction they'd like to pursue after graduation. … Making those relationships – that's one thing I like to help our students do."

Donia Timby, Instructor of human development and family sciences

Exploring Opportunities With Electives and Minors

Another way family sciences students can discover potential paths – even unexpected ones – is by using elective hours to explore different subjects.

"Our human development and family sciences program has quite a few hours of electives," Timby explains. "So, if a student would like to explore social work, they could go take a course in that. Maybe through that class, they'd find an interest in child advocacy."

Psychology courses that require HDFS courses as prerequisites or don't require prerequisites are popular elective choices for her students, Timby adds.

"You're really not going to go wrong with any of our courses," she adds. "There are so many that could help them along in their career. Maybe a student would want to take more adult classes or maybe they'd rather take additional child classes."

Along with required electives from within the HDFS major, students also take several general electives – and the possibilities here are nearly endless since students can choose from courses offered across the university.

Timby adds that general electives don't necessarily have to align perfectly with someone's major, but rather they can be any subject that might help them personally or professionally.

"I ask students, ‘What would be fun for you?' I'll tell them to branch out and take a class in a subject they enjoy," she says. She gives an example of a student who took a floral design class offered by U of A's horticulture program.

"Horticulture isn't necessarily her career interest, but learning how to make bouquets is something that could help her as a child life specialist," she says.

Along with electives, HDFS students could also pursue a minor, which would give students a more structured way to explore a closely related area of interest.


The Connection Between Childhood Development and the Natural World

Often, a career path is inspired by finding a connection between several personal passions. For Timby, it's combining nature and human development.

"Children learn through their senses. They touch things, smell things, hear things," she explains. "The outside space of a child care program is just as important as the inside space."

Children learn through their senses, which can be sharpened in natural settings.

The University of Arkansas Jean Tyson Child Development Study Center serves children between the ages of 8 weeks and 5 years – and this on-campus service also provides many hands-on learning opportunities for students. For example, Timby leads a curriculum and assessment class. In 2019, students in that class designed and built a garden that has since been used as a learning tool for kids at the center.

"Outdoor spaces like our playground are good for children, as they help them learn to maneuver across spaces that aren't flat. They learn to problem-solve," Timby says.

As part of the curriculum development class, Timby says students thought of ways infants through toddlers could engage with the outdoor space.

"Our HDFS students would imagine the ways different age groups could use the garden space and, of course, tie that into state teaching standards," says Timby, adding that the garden itself, by design, helps students learn to nurture.

"They learn how flowers, herbs and plants need water, the soil and the sunshine. They learn to be gentle with them," she explains. "And that helps them when they're interacting with others. Learning about nature teaches them about kindness and taking care of things."

Timby explains how the natural world serves as an amazing classroom in itself.

"Children get to experience outside sounds vs. the sounds of the classroom. They get to use all sorts of vocabulary words in nature, and they get to count all sorts of things," she says. "There's math and science, and it's all happening right there."

But it's not just the children under the center's care that are learning; the playground and, more specifically, the garden, is a true learning lab for U of A students.

"Our students get to see first-hand the emotional development of children," she explains. "They get down to their level and really engage with them. For example, if children go to grab at a plant, instead of saying, ‘no,' our students can show them how to touch a plant gently. They can also show them how to identify and pull weeds without hurting the plants."

Timby adds that aside from helping develop an outdoor-based curriculum, there's another academic element to the natural world learning experience. Students who help build a garden, for example, could write papers about the emotional and cognitive benefits of gardening.

While these particular outdoor lab class exercises, which take place at the campus child development center, aren't available as an online class, Timby explains that online human development and family sciences students can use their service-learning, internship and even independent study opportunities, to gain experience working with children in outdoor settings. She adds that online students who live within commuting distance to campus are welcome to take a course or two in person if time and schedule allow.

"I really believe children learn best through play," says Timby. "People learn the best – and the most – when they're having fun." And, in a way, that's the perspective she takes with advising: encouraging her students to get outside their comfort zones, explore and even have a little bit of fun with electives.


Career Paths in Human Development and Family Sciences

Since the HDFS major covers stages of human development across the lifespan, Timby says graduates of the program can find a range of career options for where they work and who they serve. They could work with children from birth through kindergarten, or they could specialize in working with teens and families. They could work in public and private schools, community centers, nonprofit organizations, health care facilities or human services agencies.

If students take a particular interest in how nature helps human development, they could pursue a career at a camp or nature-based child care center; Timby says more and more outdoor preschool facilities are opening. Some students with a degree in human development and family sciences might also pursue graduate school in fields such as social work, psychology, counseling and related areas.

Timby sums up her job of advising students through decisions that will affect their education and career: "I like to help them go in whatever way their heart is going," she says. "And often, that's in the direction of a child life specialist."

Whether you'd like to follow Timby's footsteps into a position that involves nature-based play or you want to work in agency settings with teenagers and adults, you'll find many rewarding career possibilities in the human development and family sciences field.

Visit our program page to learn more about earning a bachelor's degree in human development and family sciences at the University of Arkansas ONLINE.

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Bachelor of Science in Human Development and Family Sciences

Do you like working with people? This bachelor’s degree program will prepare you for human services careers that assist individuals and families of all ages, from infants to seniors. You will gain knowledge and skills that you can use to help others cope with crises or help them plan better lives.

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