Olympic Effort to get Children into Biology

12 February 2012

Interview with

Sir Steve Redgrave, British Rowing Team, Prof Mark Walport, The Wellcome Trust

A new project launched in London this week ahead of the 2012 Olympics to get school children across the country thinking about their bodies and how they work (if they needed any help with that) using sports exercise and a range of scientific experiments. Meera Senthilingam went along to the launch.

Meera -   The pupils of St. Paul's Trust School in East London were treated this week to a range of experimental kits, helping them to explore their inner workings of their bodies during exercise.  The kits will be delivered to schools across the UK as part of an initiative inspired by the 2012 Olympics and brought in by the Wellcome Trust to help pupils get active and in the zone as Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust, explains.

Mark -   The Wellcome Trust has launched a series of kits for schools called In the Zone, teaching the next generation about their bodies and fitness which is designed for all stages of school, so it'll go out to more than 23,000 primary schools, to more than 6,000 secondary schools.  And each of the boxes contains a series of experiments.

Wellcome TrustMeera -   So it's really focusing in on physiological traits that would benefit people perhaps during exercise.

Mark -   Yes, that's part of it and it's also partly about teaching people how their body responds to exercise.  So, if you think about the brain,  reaction time is important, so there is an experiment that can measure reaction time.  Your muscles are obviously hugely important in exercise and so, for primary children, there are simple experiments like, can you jump further if you have longer limbs?  For secondary schools, we've got experiments that teach people about lung capacity.  Obviously, if you have big lungs you're much fitter, potentially.  Your heart rate is a very good measure of your fitness and how your heart rate changes in exercise and so, we've got pulse oximeters.  It's a whole series of experiments which are, on the one hand, linked to the curriculum so they're relevant to science.  On the other hand, they're specifically about health and exercising.

Meera -   Have you had a go, Mark, on the equipment yourself?

Mark -   Yes, I've had a go on some of it but I'm not sure I'd like to tell you the results!

Meera -   Wellcome Trust Director, Mark Walport.  Although Mark wasn't keen to share his results, many students were, as they publicly performed some of the experiments out on display, including one measuring lung capacity...

Cusomo -   Hi.  I'm Cusomo Baker.  I'm 13 and I'm in year nine.

Meera -   So Cusomo, you've got one of the experiments from the kits here which is a long plastic bag with lots of numbers down it...

Cusomo -   Basically, it's got litres on the bag.  You have to blow in it and that will show you how much you can breathe into it from your lungs.

Meera -   So this looks at your lung capacity.

Cusomo -   Yes, lung capacity.  It's to do with your height, whether if you're longer, you will blow higher or if you're shorter, you will blow lower.  So that depends on that.

Meera -   Okay, so how tall are you?Olympic Rings

Cusomo -   I'm 5 foot 3.

Meera -   Okay, let's see how much air you can let out.

Cusomo -   Okay, I'll try it then.

Meera -   ...you breathed out a litre and a half!

Cusomo -   Yeah.

Meera -   One man able to fill the entire 6 litres of the bag and more was 5-time Olympic gold medallist Steve Redgrave, though he is 6 foot 4, and the kits help you learn that height can greatly benefit this particular physiological attribute.

Steve -   Hi.  I'm Steve Redgrave and here with the Wellcome Trust today, having a lot of fun doing some experiments.

Meera -   What would you say are the main physiological traits that people need to succeed at rowing?

Steve -   The physical side is the length of levers.  You don't really get very small people competing at the highest level.  You can get short people to a reasonable level, but when it actually comes down to athlete size, they're all very tall.  It's all about long levers in some ways.

Meera -   Being tall is good.  You've got those levers to get you through the water quite quickly, but what about your internal organs & phisiology?

Steve -   Rowing is an endurance based sport.  So you've got the physical side, you've got the right specimens leverage wise.  They also have got to be trained to be be very efficient.  If you don't have the lung capacity, the VO2 uptake transferring oxygen into energy that goes into red blood cells to feed the muscles, from that point of view, you're not going to be very efficient.  So the science behind it becomes immense - training, preparation, monitoring, trying to improve levels all the time.

When I started back in the '70s, there was none of this.  I remember one of the chief coaches wanting to do a muscle biopsy on me.  I'd worked for a number of years building up my muscle and they wanted to stick a little needle in and pull a bit out just to find out if I was more fast twitch or slow twitch fibres!  Endurance sport tends to need slower twitch, faster speed tends to be more fast twitch.  I was a reasonable sprinter so I must have a reasonable amount of fast twitch fibres within my makeup but endurance wise, you can train it.  So having that ability of natural speed and then trained for endurance, so the best of both worlds in some ways.

Meera -   Did you learn a lot about how your body actually works through all this training and through the scientific methodology and did that help you then to get better?

Steve -  I think it does.  In sport, everyone seems to get faster all the time.  They may not get faster every time they go out or within a year or even an Olympiad, the 4-year cycle.  But over a period of time, times get quicker, athletes go quicker.  You've got to use every aspect so diet, training, the science behind it - it all plays a part to being a better and faster athlete than we were before.

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