National Biomechanics Day continued to build momentum in its second year, as scientists from Delaware to New Zealand got a jump on recruiting the next generation of biomechanists by demonstrating a wide range of applications—not to mention just how much fun the field can be.
By Hank Black
The second annual National Biomechanics Day (NBD), officially held April 6, had an extended lifespan and a decidedly international feel. Around the world and throughout the month, thousands of elementary, high school, and undergraduate university students discovered the science of movement in its many manifestations, from gait analysis to acrobatic yoga to designing prosthetic devices.
In keeping with its slogan—“science meets fun”— NBD created widespread excitement among students, whose smiles appeared in myriad social media posts documenting their participation. Images and video featured in these posts included motion capture of soccer moves, fall prevention on a treadmill, advances in exoskeletons, making models of limbs, and competition to see who could jump on bubble wrap with the lowest number of popping sounds.
NBD memes bounced around the internet on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter (#NationalBiomechanicsDay on all), and other electronic platforms, many allowing real-time video and chatting to share activities. A few of the students’ remarks: “This is amazing,” “So much fun,” and “I want to do this when I get to college.”
“There are so many ways to use biomechanics in careers, but most students aren’t introduced to the field before they make their decisions on what to study in higher education,” said Paul DeVita, PhD, founder of NBD and past president of the American Society of Biomechanics (ASB). “We wanted to find a way to raise awareness and help young students discover this exciting field that can lead to so many different careers.”
By the numbers
Last year’s inaugural NBD attracted more than 2000 students at about 50 sites across the country. Some 175 biomechanists and graduate students participated.
This year, the number of students touched by the celebration exceeded 5000, with more to be counted in the US. They circulated through demonstrations at university and commercial laboratories in almost every state of the union. The events had a definite
international flavor, as well as multiple universities took part in New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, and England, and at least one site each in Saudi Arabia, Canada, Belgium, and other countries.
“The tremendous response has been gratifying to all who volunteered to participate,” DeVita said.
The event’s organizers hope to establish biomechanics as a standard element in high school curricula, said DeVita, who is a professor in the Department of Kinesiology and director of the Biomechanics Laboratory at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC.
“There will be more and more jobs available that involve biomechanics,” he said. “Baseball teams have started to hire such specialists to help analyze the hitting and pitching movements of their minor leaguers. We biomechanists are working like crazy on the development of prosthetic devices for amputees. Exoskeletons, including those that power the lower extremities, fascinate many people.”
Geeking out in Memphis
NBD has been able to capitalize on the immense popularity among young people of video games and animation, which provides a major intersection with biomechanics, according to Max R. Paquette, PhD, who is an assistant professor in the School of Health Studies in the unit of Exercise, Sports and Movement Sciences as well as director of the Sports Performance and Health Consulting Center at the University of Memphis in Tennessee.
“NBD really is a big geeking-out event,” Paquette said. “Video capture techniques are huge in biomechanics, but also are the basis for gaming and animation, so the younger generations are already attracted to that field and many will find work there.”
Sports examples were universally exciting for students, participants said. NBD falls near the date of the Masters golf tournament and the beginning of baseball season, so Paquette placed emphasis on motion capture of golfers at last year’s NBD and a 3D model that simulated baseball pitching mechanics this year. Students who visited the Memphis lab also saw and experienced how electromyography, motion capture, and force platforms can depict muscle activity and jumping biomechanics.
One of the most popular events was the demonstration of a new kind of ankle foot orthosis designed and constructed by Denis DiAngelo, PhD, ME, professor of orthopedic surgery and biomedical engineering, and Chloe Chung, a doctoral engineering student who works with Paquette and Douglas Powell, PhD, assistant professor of health studies, from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis.
Chung explained to the children how the brace has very small pressure cylinders on each side that allow the ankle to move not just in flexion and extension, but also in inversion and eversion; the designers hypothesize this movement will facilitate the healing of ankle injuries.
“The students were fascinated by how changes in this brace could change movement patterns,” Paquette said.
Connecting in Gainesville
Chris J. Hass, PhD, president of the ASB, said the NBD is intended to open the field of biomechanics to more students in general, with an emphasis on increasing underrepresented populations.
“Biomechanics is a career niche where almost everything we do focuses on an application that can enhance human performance. My particular emphasis is on increasing the number of females in the field,” Hass said. “Many young girls turn away from science education in their teen years. There’s a disconnect there, and we think biomechanics can provide a bridge to STEM [science, technology, engineering, math] education in college.”
He pointed to the role biomechanics has played in understanding the mechanisms that can contribute to a higher incidence of anterior cruciate ligament injury in female athletes than in their male counterparts,1,2 for example.
“Biomechanics also played a huge part in the creation of prerehabilitation as a mindset, with the goal of using research findings related to injury mechanisms to develop conditioning programs to reduce the incidence of injury,” Hass said. “Without the ability of biomechanics to measure and quantify the actions that lead to injury, we wouldn’t have the effective preventive programs3,4 that are available now.”
NBD events at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where Hass is a professor in the Department of Applied Physiology and Kinesiology, involved second- and third-grade students. He said he was shocked these youngsters had the capacity to follow presentations about servomotors and prosthetic devices.
“It was pretty impressive. And we included the kids in things like acrobatic yoga, which helped explain counter-balancing and maintaining the center of mass within the base of support,” he said.
Motion capture in Las Vegas
Across the country, Janet S. Dufek, PhD, FACSM, reported that high school students submitted essays to their teachers to compete for the chance to go to the NBD event at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas (UNLV).
“Upon arriving in the laboratory, we first gathered students’ data, giving them a number rather than a name, just to introduce them to human-subject procedures,” said Dufek, who is associate dean of the School of Allied Health Sciences and professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Nutrition Sciences, where she focuses on the biomechanics of lower extremity function and gait. “We introduced them to motion-capture technology to evaluate maximum sprinting, force platforms for jumping evaluation, and quadriceps-hamstring relationships using isokinetic measures. These data were used to project the relationship between muscle strength and performance, which the students later saw projected correlationally and discussed.”
The students were allowed to try spring boots on a force platform, run in a positive pressure treadmill, and walk and run on an instrumented treadmill where they could observe the relationships between their speed and the generated force vector.
On the radar in Delaware
About 175 high schoolers and 10 high school teachers rotated through 10 NBD demonstrations at the University of Delaware in Newark. Elisa S. Arch, PhD, research assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Applied Physiology, said many students gained a new understanding of the potential of biomechanics for a career.
“Because of our NBD activities, several students want to pursue biomechanics applications for their senior capstone project. And one school decided to take their entire school on a daylong STEM field trip later in the year based on the excitement generated from their attendance at NBD,” Arch said.
Yvonne Gabriel, who teaches at the Science and Mathematics Academy at Aberdeen High School in Maryland, took her advanced high school classes to Delaware’s NBD events this year and last year.
“Biomechanics wasn’t on most of my students’ radar before National Biomechanics Day,” Gabriel said. “Afterwards, a bunch of them asked to change their next-year elective to my course, where we teach research by looking at the human body.”
Gabriel said her emphasis is on macrobiology.
“We look at gait, posture, and other things we see at NBD,” she said. “Many students are athletic and are interested in movement, so that’s how we ‘trick’ them into learning the research process.”
Putting up numbers in New Zealand
The most successful NBD event outside the US was in New Zealand. More than 1000 high school students in metropolitan areas attended in person, and up to 150 others were connected by live streaming over the internet to their rural schools, according to Sarah Shultz, PhD, ATC.
“Strong government backing, from both a city council and a national ministry, as well as support from industry sponsors, helped provide demonstrations, equipment, and transportation of students to campus,” said Shultz, a senior lecturer in the School of Sport and Exercise at Massey University in Wellington. “Check out @NZNBD on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to see the demonstrations. We had a lot of laughing and kids saying, ‘Oh, cool!’”
Jumping and landing demonstrations were both low tech (the aforementioned bubble wrap popping challenge) and high tech (instrumented mats). Shultz said a highlight was the appearance of a men’s professional basketball player, who showed the students ways of landing to minimize the chance of knee or ankle injury.
Hearts and minds in Chicago
Antonia Zaferiou, PhD, has experienced NBD at two different institutions. Last year she participated while visiting the sizable event at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles. This year, she inaugurated the event with three sessions at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, where she is director of Motion Analysis in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery.
At Rush, second- and third-graders switched between concurrent sessions. One brought biomechanics to life with interactive motion analysis and the engineering of a prosthetic hand prototype. The students were introduced to ground reaction forces by walking over force sensors in the floor using different strategies (eg, walk normally, then walk angrily). Then, they learned about prosthetics and the engineering design process, and built artificial hands from everyday materials. The other session was a dissection of a pig heart, led by Chris Ferrigno, PT, PhD. A postdoctoral fellow in the department, Ferrigno is part of the Science Alliance of Oak Park Education Foundation in Illinois, which financially supported Rush’s National Biomechanics Day.
“I want to be the kind of doctor who always does this,” said a second-grader while probing with scissors through the heart muscle.
Zaferiou entered biomechanics through her interest in physics and dance. She said dancers and other athletes naturally are students of movement and, if oriented toward science, can find a career in biomechanics or a related field.
“We have first-hand experience of what something like angular momentum feels like as we move and turn in dance,” she said. “Biomechanics is a great way to enhance the experience of movement, giving us a way to understand movement patterns.”
Hands-on learning in Los Angeles
At USC, this year’s NBD event not only reached some 200 high school students at campus laboratories, but also utilized Skype to connect with a high school class in Florida.
“Looking at form and function creates wonderful opportunities for students who like or need to move and understand how their body works and how they can use science and engineering to figure out the how/why of things working the way they do, such as in the difference in the structure and function of hip and knee joints,” said Jill McNitt-Gray, PhD, FASB, FISB, Gabilan Distinguished Professor in Science and Engineering.
The most successful demonstrations were hands-on, McNitt-Gray said. The young students learned how muscles, joints, and bones work together, then constructed rudimentary working models of a leg with paper towels, cardboard inserts, yarn, and other materials.
“They see how adjusting the placement of the muscles and the relative size of the tibia and femur, for example, affects how the ‘leg’ and ‘joints’ move,” McNitt-Gray said. “At the end, they had to coordinate themselves to actually kick a soccer ball with the model leg.”
USC was one of several NBD sites that partnered with community groups to reach underserved students and promote STEM education and biomechanics. The group developed learning modules involving different principles of biomechanics for the high school teachers to employ in their classes.
“It’s important to equip teachers so they can guide the learning experience. What’s cool is that biomechanics is the interface between physics, chemistry, and biology as we look at human movement,” McNitt-Gray said.
Professional pathways in Akron
Brian L. Davis, PhD, professor and chair of the Biomedical Engineering Department at the University of Akron in Ohio, was one of the biomechanists who volunteered to help plan the inaugural NBD event at his university. He was only one of many biomechanists interviewed by LER who gave “massive kudos” to DeVita for coming up with the idea of a dedicated day for biomechanics.
“Ninety-five percent of the inspiration and vision was by Paul DeVita, and the others of us just followed his lead,” Davis said via Skype while visiting his native South Africa.
More than 360 students and teachers from grades three to 11 enjoyed NBD at Akron, which included hands-on activities with diagnostic ultrasound, prosthetic legs, motion capture, and 3D simulation. Davis said the feedback received was testament to DeVita’s vision. Teachers’ comments included, “Our students had so much fun.” “Some girls who wanted to be doctors said now they’d like to get into engineering.” and “Some of our Nepali [immigrant] students never even travel outside of their neighborhood, so to be on a college campus was quite an experience for them.”
Davis, among others, has a particular interest in attracting under-represented communities to biomechanics and related fields.
“Hispanics, African Americans, Appalachian communities, and others are a vast, untapped pool of talent, with the potential to help address our nation’s pressing needs,” he said.
Akron recently hosted “Biomedical Engineering: A Platform for STEM Outreach,” a conference with the goal of creating a dialog that could lead to a national strategy for recruiting minorities. With National Science Foundation funding and support from Nike, some 60 junior high and high school teachers were among the 200-plus who attended.
“We’ve got to do some innovative things to attract young people today and prepare them even for jobs that don’t exist now,” Davis said. “I believe the ripple, multiplier effects these teachers will have on students and other teachers will help reach those individuals who need to be shown a path forward to a career.”
The need is great in American inner cities, Davis said, but pointed to another frontier for consideration.
“Fully two-hundred million young people in Africa are ready to enter the work force and need these opportunities,” he said. “All the areas that use biomechanics, from physics to biomedical engineering, to kinesiology, orthopedics, robotics, surgical instrumentation, and data analytics, can provide pathways to a viable future for them.”
‘Exploration for its own sake’
ASB President Hass noted three important results from this year’s NBD.
“Number one was seeing the enjoyment of the children being exposed to science and its applications. Then, following all the cool things going on in labs across the globe through social media was really impressive,” he said. “And finally, National Biomechanics Day was a reminder of how much fun and creativity come from learning about the scientific method. So, for a while, we [biomechanists] were able to enjoy exploration for its own sake instead of being caught up in how many research grants we’re trying to bring in.”
Hank Black is a freelance writer in Birmingham, AL.
- Renstrom P, Ljungqvist A, Arendt E, et al. Non-contact ACL injuries in female athletes: an International Olympic Committee current concepts statement.Br J Sports Med 2008;42(6):394-412.
- Malinzak RA, Colby SM, Kirkendall DT, et al. A comparison of knee joint motion patterns between men and women in selected athletic tasks.Clin Biomech 2001;16(5):438-445.
- YuB, Garrett Mechanisms of non-contact ACL injuries. Br J Sports Med 2007;41(suppl 1):i47-i51.
- Hewett TE, Ford KR, Hoogenboom TE, Myer GD. Understanding and preventing ACL injuries: current biomechanical and epidemiologic considerations – Update 2010. N Am J Phys Ther 2010;5(4):234-250.