Articles, Blog

Researchers study walking efficiency! NSF Science Now 33.

November 30, 2019

Dena Headlee: Depression is an illness
affecting 350 million people worldwide. One of the most crucial issues
is early detection. That’s why National Science
Foundation-funded engineers at the University
of Connecticut are developing a Smartphone app to monitor for symptoms of depression
in real time. Engineer Bing Wang says
there are certain behavior signs
like activity, energy levels and user speech used in detecting depression. The LifeRhythm app gathers data from various centers
on the phone like GPS, Motion, the microphone to monitor
for those signs. During two phases of the study, the team will collect data from student subjects
living on campus. Wang says these students
are under increased stressed from being young and away from home
for the first time and make good study subjects. Wang says the study
could be a first step to dealing with depression
in mass populations and help mental health workers identify depression promptly. Each year, landslides
cause roughly $3.5 billion worth of damage
in the U.S. Little is known about what happens
to cause the soil to change so suddenly from a solid to act like a liquid sending dangerous debris
flowing down a mountainside. That’s what a National Science Foundation-funded team of researchers at Duke University
want to understand. The team has developed a new way to measure the forces
inside materials like sand, soil,
and even snow. This gives researchers
a better understanding of earthquakes, avalanches and even landslide’s
early warning signs. The technique uses 3D
imaging, sensors, digital cameras and the number crunching
power of computers to get a better picture of what happens
inside granular materials as they are pressed,
pushed and squeezed. The technique converts
hundreds of thousands of cross-sectional 2D
slices into a 3D image. By measuring the tiny bend
in the particles as they are squeezed together, the researchers are able to calculate the forces
between them. The team feels this technique
may not only help researchers better understand
how sand, soil, and snow change
into a deadly force but possibly even avoid
damage and loss of life. It has taken
millions of years for humans to master
the art of walking but it seems there
is still room for improvement
especially for those who are frequently
on their feet and moving like military
infantry or athletes. A National Science
Foundation-funded research team from Carnegie Mellon and North Carolina State Universities has developed an exoskeleton device that when strapped on, actually increases walking efficiency
by seven percent. The light-weight
lower leg device uses a spring and clutch system
working in tandem with calf muscles
and the Achilles tendon while people walk. Weighing about as much
as a normal loafer, it is not motorized
and requires no power source. When tested on nine-able
body adults, the device acted like a catapult
putting a spring in each step that mimics the Achilles tendon. The energy savings
are equivalent to shutting a ten pound backpack. The team says that
while the study shows, we still have a lot to learn
about biomechanics and walking, they hope someday soon
to have simple lightweight and relatively inexpensive exoskeletons to help both abled-body people and those recovering
from stroke or gait impairments increase walking efficiency. An element of surprise
helps babies learn. That’s what National Science
Foundation-funded researchers at Johns Hopkins University
have discovered. The team showed
eleven-month old babies both surprising
and predictable situations regarding an object. One group saw a ball
roll down a ramp and appeared to be
stopped by a wall. Another group saw
the ball roll down and appeared to pass right through
the wall as if by magic. When the ball
surprised the babies by not behaving as expected, they learned about that ball
better than babies who saw it behave as expected.
Researcher Aimee E. Stahl and her team
found that the infants didn’t just learn more about
the object’s surprising behavior, they wanted to understand them. The babies chose
to explore the object that behaved surprisingly over entirely new toys
and for instance, when babies saw the surprising event in which the ball appeared
to pass through the wall they tested the ball’s solidity
by banging it on the table. But when babies saw
a different surprising event in which the ball appeared
to hover in mid-air, they tested the balls gravity
by dropping it onto the floor. Stall says that infants
are not only equipped with core knowledge about fundamental
aspects of their world but early on they harness this knowledge
to empower new learning. For more information
about these stories, visit us at This is NSF Science Now.
I’m Dena Headlee.

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