Middle school comes to college

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!