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Virginia Tech engineers host local students for hands-on National Biomechanics Day event

April 26th, 2018

A photo of a high school student performing a vertical jump test in the Granata Lab as part of National Biomechanics Day activities.

A vertical jump test may be a common procedure for assessing lower body strength, but it’s not every day that teenagers get to compare their performance instantly with other teenagers across the state – and around the globe.

More than 80 local students from Auburn, Floyd, Giles, and Radford high schools were invited to do just that during Virginia Tech’s recent National Biomechanics Day festivities. Chaired by Robin Queen, associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics, the day’s activities included hands-on biomechanics demonstrations in five different labs throughout the College of Engineering.

The international event, now in its third year, aims to introduce high school students to the field of biomechanics, a growing engineering discipline that combines biology and physiology with physics and math in a wide range of applications. At Virginia Tech, the activities are also designed to create an opportunity for these high school students to talk with current engineering students and faculty about the college experience and engineering in general. 

“I wanted our students to come so they could see the types of careers and pathways that might be available through biomechanics,” said Margaret Sproule, a career coach at Radford High School. “This is the first outreach opportunity we’ve had for this type of event, and that was really exciting for us. We have opportunities to be on campus, but to do something specific that relates to certain majors and disciplines is really unique.”

The day’s schedule not only showcased the variety of biomechanics applications and careers available to students, but it also introduced the visitors to several ongoing research projects at the university.

While the Granata Lab hosted students for athletic-inspired assessments of vertical jump height and balance tests, other labs exhibited exosuits meant to ease bodily strain for industrial workers. Students also watched as ultrasound was used to show the stretching properties of tendons, and they even discussed how the biomechanical properties of flying snakes allow these animals to land and fall without injury.

Not all of the festivities were just for the sake of demonstration, however. Data collected in the Granata Lab’s assessments was uploaded in real-time to an online, interactive graph that displayed results from students going through similar testing at the University of Virginia and James Madison University as well as six universities in New Zealand. These efforts, dubbed the Big Experiment, are part of a larger project between Queen and collaborator Sarah Shultz, a researcher and senior lecturer at Massey University in Wellington, New Zealand.

Queen said she and Shultz wanted the data collection for the Big Experiment – which will continue from year to year – to be fairly simple while also illustrating biomechanical principles in tangible ways students could understand. 

“Biomechanics is a way to engage students in many different scientific disciplines through a single question,” said Queen. “People who study biomechanics are involved in health care, injury prevention, sports performance, and other areas that are easy to relate to. It’s an application-based method of teaching some of these fundamental ideas and concepts of advanced science.”

For the many undergraduate and graduate student volunteers who helped National Biomechanics Day run smoothly at Virginia Tech, the event was also an opportunity to connect with high school students who may have the same questions they themselves were asking only several years ago.

“Growing up, I had great great pre-college experiences from university outreach initiatives,” said Cherice Hughes-Oliver, a biomedical engineering doctoral student who organized many of the day’s activities on campus. Hughes-Oliver also coordinated with local schools beforehand to ensure the experience would be worthwhile for visiting students and meet teachers’ classroom needs.

“I definitely question whether I would be where I am today if it weren’t for all of that institutional support and knowing what resources would be available to me on a college campus,” she said. “Most students don’t have that same level of exposure before starting college, and I think it’s really important to give that experience back.”

National Biomechanics Day at Virginia Tech was sponsored in part by Qualisys. Additional participating faculty members include Jake Socha, Vincent Wang, and Sara Arena in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics; Michael Madigan, Divya Srinivasan, and Maury Nussbaum in the Grado Department of Industrial Systems Engineering; and Alan Asbeck in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Written by Emily Roediger

Read the story on Virginia Tech News