Faculty Highlight: John Drazan

Bridging Athletics and STEM through Biomechanics

BME Faculty Highlights Series
Professor John Drazan and Outreach Activities

This article is the sixth in a series aimed at spotlighting the faculty in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at RPI. In this series, we will highlight biomedical research areas, cutting edge engineering techniques, student and trainee successes, as well as the broader societal impacts of the work in BME. Stay tuned each month of this academic year for more features, and follow us on Twitter @RPI_BME (https://twitter.com/RPI_BME).

This Wednesday, April 11, over a hundred high school students will descend on the RPI campus – but not quite for the usual campus tours. Students from Lansingburgh and Watervliet will be attending events for National Biomechanics Day to learn how STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) and biomechanics are intertwined with their everyday lives and interests.

Broadly, biomechanics is the study of how various mechanical laws, which have long been described in physics and engineering, relate to the movement and function of biological systems – in everything from the flight of an insect to the best pitching dynamics to avoid injury. Although human biomechanics is everywhere around us, few realize the diverse role that STEM and research can play in everything from household activities to athletic performance. National Biomechanics Day (NBD) was started in 2016, with support of the American Society for Biomechanics, to reach out to the younger generation about the “influence and impact of Biomechanics on our society.” Since then, the program has grown through synchronized, grassroots events at universities and companies as well as a strong presence on social media.

Here at Rensselaer, this year’s events are led by BME Lecturer John Drazan, who has also long been involved in various initiatives to use sports as a bridge to under-represented and under-privileged youth to encourage interest and participation in STEM. To better reach out to the high school students, many of whom are also athletes, Drazan has enlisted the help of RPI student-athletes from the men’s and women’s basketball and soccer teams to develop outreach programs for NBD. In the weeks leading up to NBD, these student-athletes, many of whom are themselves in STEM majors, have met weekly to discuss, design, and build affordable sports analytics tools that can be used to help engage high school students in connecting athletic performance to STEM. Along the way, these students have developed in themselves a stronger link between sports and biomechanics.

The past few weeks of preparing for NBD have impacted the perspectives and outlook of the student athletes, according to Alexis Castrellon, a women’s soccer player in Biology. “I always knew there was a connection between STEM and everything else in the world. However, participating in this program has really opened up my eyes as to how connected sport and STEM are.”

“Through working with John I've learned just how easily common engineering principles can be applied to sports,” reflects Matthew LaBranche, a men’s soccer player majoring in Materials Engineering. “Now, […] I have the knowledge that I can develop tests and examine results to be able to draw conclusions that are useful in improving [athletic] performance. As an athlete you know the value of analyzing tactics or your performance to improve going forward, so those values certainly help me become a better engineer.”

Daniel Corridan, a Civil Engineering major and also on the men’s soccer team, agrees. “Athletes are always interested in improving their game and learning about biomechanics and the scientific principles that govern it can help athletes to improve their skillset for their specific sport. […] Having metrics for certain core exercises/drills is inspiring because it sets a goal that I can work towards. Seeing the data and having prescriptive advice on how to improve performance has been very effective.”

Castrellon, LaBranche, Corridan, and the other student-athletes are eager to share with the students who come to NBD the results of weeks of planning and preparation. “From NBD I hope that the kids realize how fun STEM fields can be” LaBranche says, “and how much they can improve their athletic performance by understanding how to set up an experiment, examine data, or even develop instruments for tests you want to run.”

“I have also learned about how important STEM outreach is because people who might not otherwise get involved in STEM can add unique viewpoints and diversity if they choose to get involved,” Corridan adds. “We hope to show the kids who participate that STEM principles are applicable to all aspects of life, most notably the sport which they are already interested in.”

Learn more about National Biomechanics Day at http://nationalbiomechanicsday.asbweb.org and follow the events from near or far through Twitter @BiomechanicsDay, on Instagram with #NationalBiomechanicsDay, or on Facebook by searching “National Biomechanics Day”.