LAWRENCE – There was more than chaos and pandemonium unfolding in the swirl of 30 or so hyper third-graders racing around the gymnasium Wednesday at the Frost Elementary School, twirling hula-hoops, swinging plastic swim noodles, running in circles and generally going non-stop as only elementary school kids can do.
There also was plenty of science, funded by grants totaling more than $1 million from companies like New Balance and research foundations like Robert Wood Johnson, directed by a dean at Merrimack College and now underway at schools, YMCAs and Boys & Girls clubs from Baton Rouge to Philadelphia.
It began in North Andover three or four years ago, when Kyle McInnis, the dean of Health Sciences at Merrimack College, began developing a very hands-on program called Active Science designed to get kindergartners through fifth-graders active while stimulating an interest in science.
The students are given devices similar to pedometers to strap to their waists that will measure the number of steps they take, the distance they travel, the calories they burn, the rates their hearts pump and the time that's elapsed. Then they're given the hula-hoops, swim noodles and other equipment and let loose in gyms and playgrounds.
After a half-hour or so, the students are handed tablets and asked to type the data collected by their pedometers into an application, which plots the information onto graphs and tables. Next, they're challenged with questions about their data and asked to pose a hypothesis about their activity. If you burned 100 calories over the half-hour, how many calories would you burn in two and a half hours?
Finally, there's a reward for all that work: the last step in the process is – what else? – a video game.
“They're learning to handle science without knowing (they're doing) it,” McInnis said. “They're posing questions. Collecting data. Analyzing it. Coming to conclusions. Those steps are the same we use at research universities. The process is the same. The kids are getting exposed to science using their own data. It tricks them in a way, because as far as they know, they're just playing basketball.”
Kaylani Almenas, 8, wasn't fooled.
“I like it because it makes me focus,” she said as she entered her data – 1,547 steps taken, 50.11 calories burned – while seated on the Frost gym floor after she and her classmates buzzed around the gym for a half-hour and then got down to work in a demonstration of how the app works for a crowd of adults. “It's hard and it's tricky.”
McInnis developed the application in collaboration with the Merrimack Valley YMCA, which provided the initial kids to test it. Other elementary schools and Y's across the county are using the app, including five schools in Lawrence as well as the city's Y and Boys and Girls Club. A $1 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and $150,000 from the New Balance Foundation allows the schools, Y's and other youth service agencies to receive the pedometers, tablets and apps at little or no cost.
In cities like Lawrence, the running around may be at least as important as the science. A 2012 study by the state Department of Public Health reported that Lawrence students were the most obese among the children in 80 public school districts it surveyed. Of the 2,564 Lawrence students who were screened by school nurses as part of the study, 46.6 percent were overweight or obese. The statewide average was 34.3 percent.
“It's important for us to get kids active and engaged and to rediscover a love of movement,” said Megan Bloch, senior manager of global philanthropy at New Balance.
“Our partnership with New Balance is based on our shared interest in preventing childhood obesity in the city of Lawrence and beyond,” said Frank Kenneally, chief operating officer of the Merrimack Valley Y.