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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Human Movement Sciences Students Share Their Passion for Learning

It's certainly gratifying to a faculty member when students participate in class and do well on tests and finals.

But seeing them take that extra step, beyond the classroom, to explore learning opportunities on their own, that's something else altogether.

Such was the case when a group of four students in the Darden College of Education's Department of Human Movement Sciences - both undergraduate and graduate - created the Human Movement Sciences Society a few years ago as a means of getting themselves and other students more involved in the laboratory and learning different lab techniques.

For Andrew Thompson, one of the founders of the society who earned an M.S.Ed. in exercise science in December, an introduction to the research possibilities in his exercise science major was truly a life-changing experience. When he started out as an undergraduate at ODU, Thompson had wanted to graduate with a bachelor's degree and then get a job training athletes as a strength and conditioning coach.

But after being invited to a meeting about research, and later applying for and receiving an undergraduate Honors College grant, he was, in his own words, "hooked." His passion, he says, now lies in research.

Thompson's project, "The Correlation of Heart Rate Variability and Maximal Oxygen Consumption," examined the autonomic stress response in relation to physical fitness.

"I had an amazing experience as an undergrad," said Thompson, who served as HMSS president and received his bachelor's degree from ODU in 2010. "Dr. [Jimmy] Onate [a former faculty member] and Dr. [David] Swain allowed me to come in and help with some research testing and learn the equipment. It was neat, the fact that I really got this hands-on experience and got to see a study go through the entire process. I wanted more individuals to have that experience of doing their own undergraduate study."

Thompson, along with current doctoral candidate Kyle Kelleran, and recent doctoral graduates Carmine Grieco and Eric Greska - both of whom now teach at other schools - approached Swain and Bob Spina, department chair, about their idea for establishing the society in 2009.

"Carmine, Eric and I were at other schools as undergraduates, but we had the same experiences in the lab that Andrew had," Kelleran said. "And with Andrew coming into the master's program, we said, 'How can we keep this interest going and share it with more undergraduates.'"

Thompson wasn't sure what the response of Swain and Spina would be, when the four students first approached them about unleashing even more undergraduate students on expensive lab equipment. "But they were OK with it. They said, 'Sure, we'd love for you to teach this, we'd love for you to give students more experience, more hands-on opportunities.'"

Since then, more and more students have acquired new skills in operating high-tech equipment, measuring everything from body composition and fitness levels to physiological parameters and oxygen consumption. As Spina would say later, "That's why we buy the equipment. It's not there to collect dust, and it's not just there for the faculty."

"From a faculty member's point of view, it's been amazing to see the students create this," Swain said of the society. "Andrew and Kyle and the others have infused this love of learning and interest in research into the other undergraduate students: that, hey, research is a fun thing to do. And so they're coming up with these projects on their own, and it's been very successful."

Currently, as many as 20 students are active participants in the Human Movement Sciences Society. Kelleran said the society has two main focuses: to teach undergraduate students to use lab equipment, beyond what they learn in the normal classroom setting, and to help them with resume development. Members of the society have also taught a prep course for strength and conditioning specialist certification.

"We went to some of the undergraduate classes to promote the society, and told the students that we wanted to give them the same experiences and opportunities we had," Thompson said. "We want to teach you lab equipment - let you learn it and play with it. I was surprised at how many people signed up and later showed up for the meetings."

Since Thompson received his undergraduate Honors College award, three additional students in the department have received these grants, Spina noted.

Last month, a number of the department's undergraduate and graduate students attended the Southeast regional conference of the American College of Sports Medicine (SEACSM). As with most regional meetings, the focus was on student research, Spina said.

"We had five undergraduates in attendance, two of whom presented a poster and one graduate student, Andrew, whom the conference judges ranked second out of the top eight master's presentations for the entire conference. We also had a former doctoral student, Carmine Grieco, who presented data from his dissertation," Spina said.

The title of the abstract Thompson presented at the SEACSM conference was "Heart Rate Variability, VO2max, and Stress in Healthy College Students."

Spina credits the Human Movement Sciences Society for much of this success and momentum.

"The most gratifying thing for me is to see them initiate this on their own and really build it into something that has become very well known in the department. Our students are getting extra exposure, learning different laboratory techniques and how to function in a lab. And they're doing that with minimal supervision," he said.

"They are going beyond what they do in their classes, which are very structured according to the unit. In the Human Movement Sciences Society, they're thinking about different types of experiments to do based on their reading."

Added Swain: "We do have a couple of undergraduate classes that have laboratories where they learn about certain pieces of equipment that they would be using as a professional and how they would operate it, but what they're doing in the Human Movement Society is significantly more in terms of learning equipment; they're learning much more advanced use of the equipment, equipment that's more expensive and which they would not normally play with in the classroom. And beyond that, they're learning a significantly greater amount about the process of research."

As a result of his undergraduate and graduate experiences at ODU, Thompson will enroll later this year as a doctoral student at Auburn University, where he has won an outstanding doctoral research assistantship and will study kinesiology and neuroscience. His chosen field of interest is the stress response of first responders - such as police officers, firefighters and members of the military. "Their response to stress can make or break their performance; it can save lives," Thompson said.

Kelleran, who is close to earning his Ph.D. in human movement sciences, with a concentration in applied kinesiology, wants to join the Navy as a research physiologist. "Hopefully, I can serve in a research setting in either Portsmouth, Bethesda or San Diego," he said.

"The Human Movement Sciences Society, created by students, supported by a dynamic faculty, is the model for preparing the leaders and problem-solvers of the future," said Linda Irwin-DeVitis, dean of the Darden College of Education. "As a military mom, I am glad that our graduates are making a difference in real ways for our soldiers, sailors, marines and first responders. The undergraduate and graduate involvement in research is the pinnacle of what it means to educate students who will ask the important questions and refuse to settle for the status quo."

Spina is confident that there will be many more success stories in the department, thanks in large measure to the Human Movement Sciences Society. "The fact that the initiative came from students shows the dedication, the interest and intellectual curiosity that they have for the research process. Some of these students are going to go on and do really great things in this field. This is the future generation of my discipline, so it makes my heart feel good."

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