Climb for Science

johanna.boyle and johanna.boyle

Phil Watts leaned forward, adjusting the mask over the child’s face. He ran one last check over the straps and stood back, examining his handiwork.

“Oh yeah, Darth Vader, very cool,” he said, laughing.

But this isn’t a costume: it’s a metabolic analyzer, a mask which collects the air breathed out. The child wearing it is also strapped with a heart rate monitor. He is one of the participants in Watts’ current study on the physiological effects of rock climbing on children.

This study is the first of its kind done in the world, adding to NMU’s collection of rock climbing studies done on adults.

Conducted by NMU professor Phil Watts, the grant-funded study focuses on children ages eight to 13.

“We know about kids playing basketball or running, but we have no research on young people and climbing,” Watts said.

In February 2006, Watts received the grant which funds the project, and began testing this semester, which will continue through May. He plans to present the findings at the American Conference of Sports Medicine in May 2008 and in one or two written studies, he said.

The grant provides funding for heart rate monitors and a specially designed island climbing wall, which allows the children to climb continuously at a low height level in a circle about 4 feet off the ground. Also purchased for the project was a portable metabolic analyzer, a mask which collects the air each child breaths out and analyzes it for energy expended.

All the analysis equipment is wireless, transmitting information to a laptop, allowing the child to climb without being tethered by wires.

Children are tested individually, with each test taking around an hour to complete. Watts budgets about 20 minutes of climbing for each child, with the rest of the hour used to prep the experiment.

Once the child is outfitted with the breathing mask, the heart rate monitor and the wireless transmitters, which are held in a back harness, testing begins with a five minute rest period, to calibrate the equipment.

The child then climbs for five minutes, rests for five minutes, and then climbs and rests five more times in one minute intervals.

Watts does not limit the number of boys versus girls, and so far, the number of participants has been fairly equal, he said.

To find participants, Watts advertised by sending out press releases, both through the NMU and the Marquette communities.

Karin Stulz, a professor in NMU’s college of business, brought her son Connor, 12, to participate in the study.

“We thought he would find this fun. There’re not a lot of physical things that he likes to do: hockey and rock climbing,” she said. “Both my husband and I work at the university, so we try to keep up with what’s going on.”

For Watts, who teaches mainly exercise physiology classes at NMU, rock climbing started as part of an adventure training program course with his wife in 1978.

His previous studies in rock climbing with adults have collected data on everything from physical characteristics of good climbers, like length of arms and legs, to energy outputs.

Designing a first-time study involving children carries its own set of challenges, Watts said.

The idea was easy to come up with, he said, however, the hard part was figuring out the logistics of using the new equipment.

“It’s a challenge working with children. It’s important for kids to stick with the protocol you give them, so it’s a challenge to communicate. But they’ve been great,” he said.

Challenges aside, this study has the ability to open special opportunities, including increased enrollment for NMU, Watts said.

“One of my goals would be for a high school student to think, ‘Hey, maybe I want to go to Northern and get involved with this research,'” Watts said.

“We have a premiere exercise science program. This is another way to let the world know what we’re doing.”