Students use TikTok to learn about biomechanics during engineering virtual summer camps

8/14/2020 Sharita Forrest

Outreach and public engagement coordinator Lara Hebert, postdoctoral research associate Gabriel Burks, and bioengineering professor Jennifer Amos, developed a virtual summer camp that gave about 500 high school students across the U.S. the opportunity to sample 12 engineering disciplines. The camps were offered virtually during summer 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns.

Written by Sharita Forrest

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — During the COVID-19 shutdown, many families passed the time recording videos of themselves dancing and posting them to the video-sharing site TikTok. For hundreds of high-school students who attended a virtual summer camp hosted by Grainger College of Engineering, creating short dance videos helped them learn the science of biomechanics and the principles of movement-analysis research.


Although safety concerns associated with the pandemic prompted the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign to close many of its popular residential summer camps, about 500 young people attended the engineering college’s “What It Takes” virtual summer camps.

In addition to high school students who signed up prior to the quarantine, the participants included students from a partner organization that offers opportunities rich in science, technology, engineering and math to young people from underserved groups.

Bioengineering professor Jennifer Amos and postdoctoral research associate Gabriel Burks led the interactive Virtual Biomechanics Camp that introduced campers to motion-capture and movement-analysis research, which has applications in medicine, robotics, sports and animation.

“Using popular culture themes to teach scientific concepts is a well-known pedagogical strategy,” Amos said. “With online video sharing surging in popularity during the quarantine, it seemed like a promising medium for teaching campers and their families about scientific and bioengineering concepts.”

Inspired by the popular video-sharing medium TikTok, campers were challenged to identify the best dancer in their household by recording themselves performing a 10- to 15-second dance while wearing tracking markers on their head, hands and other body parts.

Using a software plug-in, the campers identified and tracked the markers, creating a log of their two-dimensional movements and comparing the range and smoothness of their motions to those of a model dancer performing the same actions. The model dancer could be a friend, a family member or one of three celebrity dancers in videos provided to the campers.

As part of their data analyses, campers looked at the angles of the dancers’ joints and were prompted to think about how their dance movements might be affected by aging. They also considered the types of diseases or conditions the data might be helpful in diagnosing and discussed how it might be used to design orthopedic devices or braces.  

By involving family and friends in the activities as learning partners, the biomechanics camp promoted the social aspects of learning and circumvented the sense of isolation often associated with remote learning, Amos, Burks and Hebert wrote in a paper accepted for publication in the Journal of Biomedical Engineering Education.

Public engagement coordinator Lara Hebert said the camps were designed to recreate the hands-on learning and social experiences that are essential to the residential summer camps.

Campers worked on hands-on projects such as building hydraulic launchers for gliders using kits mailed to their homes, participated in virtual tours of campus facilities and related industries, engaged in game nights and scavenger hunts and took part in group discussions using web-conferencing tools.

Campers also had access to a chat platform and were encouraged to interact with peers by forming study groups to discuss their lab activities.

“The activities seemed particularly successful at engaging students with their household members and drawing them all into the learning process, which added much value to our group reflection time during the follow-up portion of the camp,” said Burks, who led the planning team for all the virtual camps and the biomechanics camp.

“The students were able to draw better conclusions regarding the differences in people with differing physical builds and biomechanical limitations through working with family members who were older or younger, or who possessed different injury histories than themselves,” he said.

Bioengineering was one of the 12 engineering disciplines campers received an overview of during their first week of camp and could choose to explore in greater depth with three- to five-hour mini-courses during the second week.

In summers past, the bioengineering camp served 50 students during the full-week “deep-dive” experience and another 100 students who spent a half-day with each engineering discipline. The switch to virtual camps enabled the bioengineering camp to reach a total of 475 young people, including 135 campers who participated in the bioengineering deeper-dive mini-courses.

“The virtual camps were a really big hit, and we are still hearing from campers about their appreciation of the format and structure of the virtual camp, especially when many other pre-college engineering programs canceled their summer sessions,” said Hebert, who managed the logistics for all the engineering majors represented.

Encouraging women and minority students to pursue degrees in engineering fields is one of the goals of the summer camps. About 44% of the students who participated in the virtual camps identified as female or gender nonbinary, while 14% were black or mixed-race and another 11% were Hispanic.

WAND-TV also reported on this story. View the video here

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This story was published August 14, 2020.