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Exploring a new discipline

In its inaugural year, National Biomechanics Day featured more than 60 sites throughout the country showcasing the discipline to middle and high school students.

A middle school students stands in he dark surrounded by square lights.
A student from Smith Middle School experiences Carolina's immersive virtual reality environment during National Biomechanics Day.

Students in Smith Middle School’s Maker Space club love science. They love the robotics, the computers and the new technology that can solve complex problems.

Many of them are already looking ahead to studying science in college, but like most other young scientists, biomechanics wasn’t even on their radar yet.

Assistant professor of biomedical engineering Jason Franz was looking to reverse that trend April 7 when the students from the Chapel Hill-based middle school stopped by his lab for National Biomechanics Day.

In its inaugural year, National Biomechanics Day featured more than 60 sites throughout the country showcasing the discipline to middle and high school students.

“The reason we’re doing this is because most people don’t even know biomechanics exist until college,” Franz said. “Biomechanics is this interdisciplinary field. We’re merging medicine, engineering, math and science. But biomechanics isn’t introduced to students until they get to college, and there’s a lot of career opportunity for students that go through biomechanics.”

Franz and members of the Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering at Carolina and NC State spent the afternoon showcasing the mission and technologies of biomechanics by allowing the young students to explore the field firsthand.

The middle school students visited the applied biomechanics laboratory to experience an immersive virtual reality environment, use ultrasound imagining and examine muscle activity using a wireless electromyography system.

“We like to help people,” Franz said. “All this equipment is being used to help some of the world’s top athletes get on the cutting-edge for game day so they can win the big game. We’re trying to use some of this technology to help grandparents so they don’t fall and hurt themselves. And we’re trying to use this equipment to teach people how to walk if they have an injury or disease and they think they’re never going to walk again. We can use this technology to help them.”

It was an eye-opening experience for eighth-grader Klara Altmueller, who had never seen much of the technology she had the chance to use.

“It’s exciting just to see what biomechanics is,” she said. “I have never really heard of it, and I’m trying to explore different fields. It’s cool. It’s interesting how you can use computers to figure out our bodies.”

Kelly Sears, a Smith Middle School science teacher who leads the Maker Space club, said that even though her students are years away from college, the experience in the lab could leave a lasting impact.

“It’s really cool for them to see what is being used in research and hopefully broaden their horizons about careers and possible choices they might back in the future,” she said. “It’s the things that they dream about now that will make them start to consider ‘I could do this. And if I’m going to do this, this is the kind of education I need to get.”