March 09, 2007

New kinesiology laboratory enhances research

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. — What's the first thing you think of when you hear the words physical education?

"Gym teacher!" says Michael W. Olson, assistant professor of kinesiology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Which is why SIUC's old Department of Physical Education has transformed itself into the Department of Kinesiology. Not that it doesn't still turn out P.E. teachers.

"But that's only one focus," Olson says. "We also offer exercise science and athletic training as undergraduate majors."

Kinesiology — literally the "study of movement" — tries to figure out the how and why of physical activity ranging from the choreography of sports to the repetitive movements of manual labor. Biomechanics, Olson's specialty, focuses on the motion of particular body parts and the forces that act upon them during those movements.

"We take what we know from engineering and physics and apply it to the human body," Olson says.

"We look at the body as a machine and ask how it functions as a machine, especially when you factor in such things as motor control, musculature, gravity.

"It's theoretically based but for a practical purpose, allowing us to reach out to athletes, coaches, personal trainers, physical therapists, doctors."

Olson's research, for example, looks at the lower back and how movements of various kinds affect it.

"If you're at a job that requires you to lift frequently, what does that do to your back?" Olson muses.

"We know the system does fatigue. You get tired after a certain time. That's why breaks at work are very beneficial. But what does this repetitive loading done throughout the day actually do?"

One thing that may help Olson discover the answer to that question is the department's new biomechanics and integrative movement lab, housed in the former women's locker room in Dorothy R. Davies Hall.

"Renovation commenced last spring, and the lab was finished just before the fall term began," Olson says.

"I'm fortunate to be able to have an area where I can do my research without having to move my equipment to other parts of the building."

The 1,600-square-foot lab, the first of its kind in the department, contains an isokinetic dynamometer, which measures the force a movement generates, and a 16-channel electro-myography system, which records electrical activity generated by the muscles. It also has two sets of timing gaits, which measure how long it takes to walk a given distance.

While the lab will expand the kind of research Olson can do, he also hopes to revise undergraduate biomechanics coursework to include lab sessions.

"They have never had a lab course before," he says.

"I think they would benefit from some hands-on in the learning process."