Northeastern University

Middle school comes to college

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Driscoll School student Irina Ter-Ovanesyan (center) uses a device to measure hand grip strength with Exercise Lab intern and UMass senior Thu Tram and Driscoll School student Claire Bialek. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Well, I had a wonderful day, how about you? Not only is it Friday, which is awesome, but I got to spend most of it with a bunch of middle schoolers learning about some of the science research taking place here at Northeastern. Each year the Driscoll Middle School in Brookline holds an event called the Science Solstice, in which the whole school participates in demonstrations and other science-related events. The 7th and 8th graders get to do lab visits with researchers all over the city. Very cool.

About a dozen of those students came to two of Northeastern’s labs and I got to be a fly on the wall for both. First, they learned about exercise science from members of health sciences professor Carmen Sceppa‘s lab. First, the lab’s research project manager Greg Cloutier gave a short presentation on the importance of exercise in health. He said that the over 600 muscles in our body are important not just in helping us move, as one of the students said, but also with with the simple activities we take for granted. Like getting out of bed, as another student offered. He taught them about the difference between the various types of body composition, fat, bone and lean tissue and then discussed the various ways Sceppa’s team is able to measure those things in an individual.

After the discussion, the students got to actually test out their own strength, endurance, and balance among other things, filling out a health performance survey along the way. They did a three minute step test, stepping up on a platform and back down in beat with a metronome for three minutes and measured their pulse afterward. They tested their own strength with a hand gripping test, jumped as high as they possible could, and did push ups until they dropped (the best I saw was one kid, dressed entirely in Northeastern garb, who did 100 even).

It was great to see the group learning and getting excited about the importance of exercise in order to stay generally healthy. “We know that exercise and good nutrition are important,” said Sceppa. The problem is actually making it happen in the midst of our busy lives. “We need to make sure to create an environment that promotes exercise,” she said. Inviting students of all ages to her lab on a regular basis is one way to make that happen, as well as through various other education measures. But more importantly, she said, we need to institute exercise into our systems of daily living. She has several projects that are dedicated to exactly that.

Students watch as action Lab PhD student Se-Woong Park puts a cap for measuring brain activity on Driscoll School student Maddie Abbott. Photo by Angela Herring.

After lunch, the group moved over to Richards Hall where they visited Dagmar Sternad‘s Action Lab. Here they also learned about movement, but from a much different perspective. “We’re crazy about movement,” is actually how Sternad put it. She asked the students if they’d ever stop to think about how we learn to do things like play table tennis or carry a glass of water without spilling it. A couple of students suggested “muscle memory” as a possible explanation, but Sternad said shes “not very happy with that term.” Because the work is really taking place in the brain. While we may take these simple movements for granted, our brains and nervous systems are working hard to make it all work properly.

What would happen if you’re brain didn’t do anything when you’re standing around? she asked. “You’d fall down.” And then she proceeded to literally fall onto the floor in probably the most graceful gesture I’ve seen all week.

Studying questions of how the brain learns to control movements amounts to  a very interdisciplinary science, Sternad said. Her team uses tools from engineering, physics and math to answer questions that come from the life sciences. The research,  Sternad explained, can be useful in helping people who’ve had brain damage that prevents their ability to move in a coordinated manner, like Parkinson’s disease and stroke.

After discussing the science, the students got to test out some of the actual tools that Dagmar’s team uses to explore it. They got to play virtual ping pong and tether ball and tried to carry a virtual cup of water. In all cases, the goal is to hit a target within a given time frame. The error, or how far from the target the subject gets, is the data of interest to the team. One student asked if anyone ever manages to complete the task in the precisely defined time limit. “Yes,” Sternad answers. “But do they get it the second time or the third time or the fourth time? No.” We can’t make the same exact movement 100% accurately every time we try, she said, and that is precisely what she finds so interesting.

Professor Dagmar Sternad shows students a miniature, real-life version of tether ball, which the lab uses computers to model and collect data on. Photo by Casey Bayer.

One of the last things she had the whole group do was attempt to move their left hand three times while at the same time moving their right hand twice and repeating the actions continuously. Well, repeating would have been a hefty feat for me, as I couldn’t even do it once. One student, a proclaimed drummer, even had difficulty. I noticed him continuing to practice later on when Sternad was wrapping up. Try it yourself — it’s incredibly difficult!


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