Studying the Science of Sports in Summer Workshops

Gerald Smith leads Science in the Summer participants at Woodridge Library in Washington, D.C. | Andrea Korte/AAAS

This summer, hundreds of Washington area elementary school children donned lab goggles and gathered scientific data to study the science of sports as part of a free, hands-on summer program.

GSK Science in the Summer, now in its 31st year, is being held this year in 25 states. The American Association for the Advancement of Science implemented and administered the program at 41 sites in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.

“The program is supported by a broad partnership — a global healthcare company GlaxoSmithKline, the world’s largest multidisciplinary science society, community-based organizations like libraries and Boys & Girls Clubs, and the K-12 educators who deliver the curriculum,” said Betty Calinger, AAAS Education and Human Resources project director. “That’s a pretty impressive force for good science for all.”

Young scientists test their reflexes using reaction rulers. | Andrea Korte/AAAS

This year’s sports-focused curriculum teaches children about the science behind movement, mechanics and nutrition. The four-day program draws children from all backgrounds, including public and private school students and homeschoolers, according to Gerald Smith, who taught sessions at Woodridge Library in Washington from Aug. 7-10. The library hosted two classes, one for incoming second- and third-graders and another for fourth- through sixth-graders.

It was the first time that Woodridge has hosted the program, according to librarian Jennifer Cavallero. Smith, however, who teaches physics and chemistry at Bishop McNamara High School, a private Catholic school in Forestville, Md., is a veteran of the program.

Smith first connected with AAAS through a professional development program six years ago and has taught Science in the Summer for five consecutive summers. He has enjoyed seeing familiar faces return to the program to learn new subjects; in previous years, participants have learned about oceanography, chemistry and the mechanics of simple machines.

Before diving into the science of sports this summer, participants received lab goggles and data sheets as part of an opening session exploring the seemingly endless boundaries of science. “There’s science in literally everything,” Smith said.

On Aug. 9, two classes of 19 students learned about the scientific forces behind the cast of physical abilities such as endurance, balance and strength that help athletes succeed. Why, for instance, is NBA star Steph Curry such a good basketball player? “His reaction time is very quick,” Smith said. “Today we’re going to start off testing out whether or not you guys have really fast reflexes.”

The young scientists got to work on an experiment. Teamed up in pairs, one child dropped a paper ruler, and the other caught it as quickly as possible. Where they grabbed the ruler revealed their reaction time in milliseconds, measurements the children recorded on data sheets.

Science in the Summer participants record data about their physical abilities. | Andrea Korte/AAAS

The second session involving the fourth- through sixth-graders delved deeper, analyzing the data they had gathered to calculate the mean, median and mode of their attempts.

The participants also learned an unexpected lesson: the power of practice. “Wow, you’re getting better,” Smith told a student whose reaction times continued to improve. “I wonder why!”

A curriculum focused on movement included plenty of it. Excitement echoed through the room as the young scientists tested their hand-eye coordination by tossing mini-beanbags to their partners across the room, recording their observations about the differences between left-handed tosses, right-handed tosses and tossing multiple beanbags at once.

They also gathered data about which side of the body is their dominant side by rolling up their data sheets to test their dominant eye and leaning precariously forward to see which leg steps out to stabilize them.

Science in the Summer participants take a silly photo to celebrate completion of the program. | Gerald Smith

At the end of the final class, participants put on their lab goggles, took two class pictures — one serious, one silly — and received certificates of completion in front of their parents. Yet the most important lesson Smith said he hopes participants take away from Science in the Summer is a desire to learn something new. “My hope for them is that I get to plant seeds in them that will prosper,” Smith said. “Every summer, I get to see some of the same students. They might not necessarily remember exactly what we learned, but they come back with this passion and this drive to do amazing things. They know something cool is going to happen.”

“That’s what the summer is supposed to be about: having fun, but also learning things,” Smith said.

The program can spark or cultivate a newfound interest among traditionally underrepresented groups in the sciences, Smith noted. For instance, girls have made up the majority of Science in the Summer classes Smith has taught over the years and their participation can help foster an interest in science to better prepare them for science classes and perhaps a career in science, he said.

“Science in the Summer and AAAS are doing an amazing thing for the youth,” Smith said. The program “allows us to invest in the future by empowering our children.”

Calinger said, “It’s been a great pleasure to deliver the GSK Science in the Summer program to children in the D.C. metro area. It serves to curb summer learning loss and is available to every child because it is free.”