WHAT'S THE NO. 1 THREAT to young students using computers today? According to Dan Odell, Microsoft's (www.microsoft.com) in-house ergonomist, when he asked parents this very question, "the things they were most concerned about were online predators and people taking advantage of their kids. Ergonomics was fairly far down the list."
Unfortunately, that same lack of regard for ergonomics can be found among educators as well. Ask one and you're almost sure to be met by a confession that the topic rates as a low priority in most schools.
Perhaps it's the dry tone of the word itself that is to blame. Ergonomics, or the discipline of arranging the environment to fit the person in it, doesn't sound terribly exciting. But with as much time as we now spend on computers, Odell believes it is more relevant than ever. "If we're not conscious of using computers appropriately," he says, "we put ourselves at risk for potentially disabling injuries."
Ergonomics has long been considered essential in the workplace for avoiding visual and musculoskeletal injury and discomfort, and Odell sees K-12 coming on board. "There is a growing awareness of how much of an impact there is on students. A lot of the ergonomists I work with at different companies have been noticing that students are graduating from college and coming into the workforce already with chronic repetitive strain-injury problems. It seems at least from the anecdotal stuff that it's important to start focusing more on the student population."
Susan Murphey, president of Essential Ergonomics (www.essentialergonomics.com), is doing just that. As community projects chair of the Puget Sound Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (www. pshfes.org) in Washington state, she is heading a project called Technically Cool Computing. The program, which she piloted in May at Washington's Shoreline School District, where her children have attended school, teaches kids how to evaluate their computer workstations and work habits to reduce their risk for musculoskeletal injuries.
"When you think of the cumulative effects--text messaging, gaming, computer use--all of that adds up," she says. She points to her own children. "My daughter as a middle schooler was building PowerPoints and video presentations ... [but she was] taught absolutely nothing about ergonomics."
The goal of Technically Cool Computing is to determine how to educate young students about ergonomics in an engaging way. Murphey believes the way to do that is by giving students and teachers a kit they can use to examine their own tech habits. She explains that the goal is to make the kit as plug-and-play as possible, so it can be incorporated anywhere in the curriculum. "If students have a technology class, it could go there," she says. "If they don't, it could go in science as they learn about tendons and muscle."
Each kit contains a low-cost digital camera, graphics on a transparency to evaluate posture, an instruction worksheet, and a PowerPoint presentation. The students take photos of each other, use the transparencies to evaluate each other's posture in the photos, then adjust their computer workstations accordingly. The kit also addresses other computing environments that may be less than ideal. This is an important feature, says Microsoft's Odell, who also volunteers with the Puget Sound ergonomics group. He cites a Microsoft study, soon to be published in the journal Work, which found that students with laptops often use them in unconventional ways--"like lying on their stomach on the floor," he says--which can further predispose them to injury.
Karen Jacobs is the founding editor of Work, which covers research related to ergonomics and children. She is also a clinical professor of occupational therapy at Boston University, where she has been studying how students use notebook computers. …