Monday, April 10, 2017

High School Students Explore the Science and Engineering of Baseball at UNO

Approximately 70 high school students visited the University of New Orleans Saturday, April 8, when they heard from Privateer baseball players about basic science and engineering principles and then saw those principles put into action during an intercollegiate game. The high school students are participants in Upward Bound, a federally funded college prep program run by UNO, and Saturday’s event was the first edition of UNO’s Inside Sports program, which is designed to give high school students a better appreciation of science and engineering concepts that play an important role in sports.

Inside Sports is presented by UNO’s Office of Research, College of Sciences and College of Engineering. Saturday’s program focused on baseball and probed concepts such as kinetic energy, motion and how the materials of the bat and ball affect how they behave in a game.

Students spent the first 90 minutes of their visit in UNO classrooms where Matt Tarr, UNO’s vice president for research and economic development, welcomed them and delivered an overview of the basic concepts. Students heard from members of the Privateers baseball team about how these concepts factor into their experiences on the field. Breaking out into smaller groups, high schoolers participated in an exercise with the help of undergraduate students from UNO science and engineering programs that allowed them to calculate their own reaction time. In this demonstration, the college student dropped a ruler that was caught by the high schooler. The measurement on the ruler where it was caught was used to calculate response time based on a chart provided for reference. A student who pinches the falling ruler at the 5 centimeter mark has a reaction time of 100 milliseconds. Pinching at 10 centimeters indicates a 140 millisecond response time, and so forth. Average reaction time is between 150-300 milliseconds.

“When your eyes see an incoming signal such as a baseball, your brain needs to first process what’s happening. It takes a fraction of a second for you to recognize the signal and respond,” explained Karen Thomas, associate dean of STEM outreach, recruitment and retention in UNO’s College of Sciences.

“During that time, your brain receives information from your senses, identifies a possible source and allows you to take action. This action-packed fraction of a second is called your reaction time,” Thomas said. “When your eye sees the ruler falling, information travels from sensory cells called neurons from the eye to the brain's visual cortex, an area devoted to understanding what you see. Next, the motor cortex—the part of the brain that directs movement—has to send signals along your spinal cord and to your arm, hand and finger muscles, telling them to respond in the proper sequence to catch the ruler—quick! That's a lot happening in less than half a second—and a pretty amazing feat!”

According to Thomas, the activity relies on the laws of physics to demonstrate the brain’s reaction time. Gravity pulls all objects toward Earth’s center at the same speed. For example, if a tennis ball and a basketball are dropped from the same height, they should both hit the ground at the same time. The same calculation applies to the ruler in the demonstration, which is how we can be certain of how fast the ruler falls.

After break-out sessions, visitors enjoyed a lunch break in the University Center and then attended UNO’s home baseball game against Lamar University at Maestri Field at First NBC Ballpark.