Students use heart-rate monitors to track their improvement as they learn math skills

Published in the March 1 – 14, 2017 issue of Morgan Hill Life

By Marty Cheek

Photo by Marty Cheek
Students, faculty, administrators and city councilmembers pose outside the new Britton Cycle Center on the Britton Middle School campus. The center was created through a partnership with Specialized Bicycles Components based in Morgan Hill.

As Britton Middle School eighth-graders peddled furiously on 50 Specialized bikes set on trainers, a female voice from a computer encouraged them to go faster. The students watched a large screen at the front of the room displaying colored graphs and numbers marking their progress.

This is not your typical physical education class. It is a pioneering one that is data-driven and tailored to young people growing up in a digital world. The P.E. students wear Polar heart-rate monitors that record how much exertion they are putting into the peddling. Projecting the real-time data on the screen enables them to visually see their energy output and compete with each other. The data is stored on the cloud on servers to allow students and teachers to monitor their physical improvement.

Among the students were Alexis Cuevas and Karen Estrada. They both said the bikes gave them more fun and motivation than doing traditional exercising for physical fitness.

“I actually enjoy P.E. because it gets us like pumped and mostly it keeps us at a safe heart rate so we know whether we need to push harder,” Estrada said.

Cuevas said the data feedback from the screen and from the computer voice encourages her to exercise more diligently.

“She tells us on the video to push harder, and if we need to cool down, we can cool down. So it pushes us to the limit,” she said. “It tells us how hard we’re working because with the colors we know if we’re really pushing to the fullest or we’re just laying back and not really putting the effort in.”

Morgan Hill-based Specialized Bicycle Components provided 30 of the bikes for the partnership with MHUSD that gives Britton students cardio training during P.E. classes. The district spent $16,000 in grant funding to buy an additional 20 bikes. Combined with exercise and heart monitoring, the system allows the school’s teachers to bring math concepts to life in a much more personal way for the students, said Britton Principal Chris Moore.

“It has been a partnership a few years in the making,” he said. “Specialized has been great to work with, and we are excited to have their equipment on our campuses. We look forward to integrating data and information that students will collect in P.E., into core math classes to enhance real world math learning opportunities.”

City council members, administrators, teachers and board members of the Morgan Hill Unified School District and interested members of the public wandered among the students during a ribbon cutting to celebrate the partnership.

“This combination creates a cutting-edge P.E. and math collaboration that no other school in the (South) Valley can offer, public or private,” Britton Assistant Principal Kristan Prolo said. “I am incredibly grateful and lucky as an administrator to have a team of teachers in my P.E. department who could see this vision from the beginning and make it come to life.”

A key part of the system is the heart-rate monitors provided by Polar which makes P.E. a much more fun and productive use of time for the students, said Lisa Rothstein, Polar Electro’s western regional account manager for education.

“We really give them the (data) tools to objectively access their students and motivate them at the same time,” she said. “The teacher sets a goal for the students. It’s all individualized. Every day they come in and work to meet their goal. It levels that playing field so that the athlete and the individual student are not competing with each other, they’re competing with themselves.”

The system also empowers the teacher with data where they can access the students’ effort and skill level and all of that data is recorded for them, she said. It grades the students based on the criteria that each student sets for the class.

“It makes it really easy and fun. It’s talking the kids language. It’s technology,” she said. “If they were just exercising in a regular P.E. class, some kids will be more motivated than others. But you put a heart-rate monitor on them, they get that real data.”

The partnership was set up through the Specialized Foundation that works with schools, said Ted Theocheung, the nonprofit’s executive director.

“This is part of a program called Riding for a Focus that ties cycling with schools and academic performance,” he said.

The foundation wants to encourage middle school students to develop lifelong habits in exercising at least three times a week for 20 minutes. Studies show this gets the students into a healthy “heart zone” that can open up their brains for better classroom learning, he said.

“When you hit those numbers, then students actually perform better academically, so their test scores improve,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons we’re targeting middle school.”
Specialized Foundation’s research advisor Kim Price works with partners such as the MHUSD to better implement exercise and technology for student benefit.

“I have a background in neural science, so working with a bike company helps to benefit kids and their brains was intriguing to me. I’ve been working at that capacity for a couple of years,” she said. “We’re looking to go from a school model to a district model. I think we’re willing to expand throughout Morgan Hill.”

Theocheung said an important objective for the foundation is to include in the school curriculum skills such as safety procedures. The other part of the program is the grant for the bicycles, he said.

“So if you have all these bicycles, the first step is to get the schools to maximize the organization of the bikes so that all the kids can benefit. That includes putting them into all the P.E. programs,” he said.