Nicole Stark, a second-year doctoral student in the joint Virginia Tech–Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences, has been awarded a 2021 Civic Engagement Microgrant Initiative by Research!America and the Rita Allen Foundation to carry out a virtual event for National Biomechanics Day on April 7.

The civic engagement initiative provides funding to graduate students in science policy groups to develop and lead outreach activities in their local communities. Stark will use the funds she received to create and host an accessible, engaging, interactive, and educational virtual experience for high school and middle school students. Her plans include interactive activities, virtual panels, and virtual engineering lab tours hosted at Biomechanics Online Learning Destination (BOLD). These events will occur throughout the week, April 6 - 10.

National Biomechanics Day began in 2016 to expand awareness of biomechanics to younger students and to increase interest in STEM through engagement in the subject. National Biomechanics Day is now an international event with participation in 28 countries. A variety of labs in the College of Engineering have participated in National Biomechanics Day each year since its inception. 

“In 2019, we had about 200 participants come to campus, and that is just not feasible this year,” Stark said. “I didn’t want to take away this learning opportunity from high-schoolers, so I looked for ways to bring biomechanics to the virtual world. What I’m hoping to do is incorporate multiple labs in an interactive setting so students can do these activities, and tour our awesome labs virtually, to learn about all the different areas of biomechanics.”

Stark conducts research in the Granata Biomechanics Lab and is mentored by Robin Queen, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics. Stark’s research is focused on gait symmetry. She does limb-to-limb comparison and analysis of the legs as a person is walking.

Stark looks for gait or loading issues, such as when a person with a recent knee procedure tends to put more weight on the healthy joint and not the recovering joint, which results in the load being larger for the healthier leg. Analyzing the data informs her understanding of asymmetrical gaits, which Stark and her colleagues hope to take to physical therapy and clinical settings to help prevent further injuries to recovering limbs.

For Stark's National Biomechanics Day event, the Granata Biomechanics Lab is developing an at-home activity for participants to do an interactive activity with a “Bill Nye''-style approach, where the participant examines movement, such as a drop vertical jump, and assesses whether or not the landing was symmetrical (i.e., if both limbs look like they move similarly).

To engage the younger audiences, Stark created a Tik Tok video of dance moves, set to a song popular among users of the app, to demonstrate limb loading and motion capture. A side-by-side video will feature a lab member wearing motion capture markers and other technology, which will provide real-time display output. Stark included side-by-side videos to demonstrate loading asymmetry during these assumed-symmetric movements. Stark included these activities to teach and highlight how asymmetry can be associated with injury risk.

“It is not the easiest thing to understand,” said Stark. “To add to that, there are so many areas of biomechanics, so being able to incorporate it all into this site is incredible. I’m excited to have a destination — online — for people to ask questions and to hopefully spark curiosity in high school students.”

The Virginia Tech site Stark is creating, Biomechanics Online Learning Destination (BOLD), will host a variety of virtual tours from engineering labs. Included are the Helmet Lab, the Socha Lab, Vincent Wang’s Orthopedic Mechanobiology Lab, the Occupational Ergonomics and Biomechanics Lab in industrial and systems engineering, and the Granata Biomechanics Lab.

In addition to the virtual lab tours, Stark plans to provide students with two panel discussions. One panel will be composed of undergraduate and graduate students who will discuss pursuing degrees in biomechanics. The second panel will be with industry leaders and those working in the field of biomechanics. They will discuss what it is like having a career in biomechanics.

Mary Woolley, president and chief executive officer of Research!America, said supporting our nation’s early-career scientists to engage with their local communities in efforts like Stark’s is a crucial and exciting step forward in enabling scientists to inform society about their research and its impact on society.

“National Biomechanics Day is an inspiring event that is hosted around the world,” said Queen of the wider event that Stark aims to celebrate. “It is a day to highlight the amazing work of biomechanists. Engaging a younger generation in science will impact the future of science and, hopefully, increase the diversity of those who look to enter science fields.”

— Written by Laura McWhinney