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New Partnership Enables Students to Gain Real-Life Research Experience

  • News Image
    Students working on research projects at R.O.C.K. this semester include (front row) kinesiology major Cheryl Duncan, psychology major Catie Ertel, biology major Dyann Lopez, psychology major Jill Coffman and kinesiology major Andrew Chappell. Working with them are (back row, at left) kinesiology professor Scott McLean and psychology professor Jacquie Muir-Broaddus. (photo by Carlos Barron)
  • News Image
    Kinesiology majors Andrew Chappell and Cheryl Duncan demonstrate how they take measurements while children are sitting on a "pressure mat." (photo by Carlos Barron)
  • News Image
    Back in the psychology research lab, Jill Coffman, Catie Ertel and Dyann Lopez input the data for their study as Professor Jacquie Muir-Broaddus looks on. (photo by Carlos Barron)

Students in two departments are doing research at R.O.C.K. this semester

At the Ride On Center for Kids in Georgetown, families and staff members say “miracles happen every day” when children and adults with disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder are given the opportunity to ride horses.

Unfortunately, the center has no quantitative research to back up this claim. And they are not alone.

“There are a lot of equine-assisted programs in the country, but peer-reviewed, published research is almost non-existent,” says Jacquie Muir-Broaddus, a professor of psychology at Southwestern.

That may change soon, thanks to a new partnership between R.O.C.K. and Southwestern. This fall, Southwestern students are working on two different research projects for R.O.C.K..

Three students in a psychology capstone class taught by Muir-Broaddus are doing a project aimed at trying to quantify changes in the behavioral, cognitive and linguistic functioning of children with autism spectrum disorder after equine therapy sessions at R.O.C.K.

Muir-Broaddus designed the research study in collaboration with R.O.C.K. and Southwestern students Jill Coffman, Catie Ertel and Dyann Lopez. The students have done most of the hands-on work, from recruiting families to participate to entering the data they collect into a computer.

The students are studying 21 children with autism spectrum disorder who range in age from 5-12. They have tested each child three times (at the beginning, middle and end of the fall session), and each time they have taken measurements that enable them to quantify changes over the semester as well as changes during a ride itself.

Muir-Broaddus received a 2009-10 Sam Taylor Fellowship from the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church to support the project. The money is helping purchase materials for the study; it will also make it possible to provide stipends to classroom teachers who complete a survey about the children undergoing hippotherapy when data collection continues in the spring.

In the meantime, students in a kinesiology capstone class taught by Scott McLean, associate professor of kinesiology, are working on a project to track physiological changes in the same children. Specifically, their project involves looking at postural balance in the children.

“Evidence suggests there are postural issues in children with autism spectrum disorder because these children are constantly in motion,” McLean says. “Hippotherapy seems to have a calming effect on them, but this is all anecdotal – there has not been any quantitative measurement.”

The Southwestern Kinesiology students are measuring the amount of postural sway in the children before and after they ride. Measurements are taken by having the children sit and stand on a mat that has multiple pressure sensors in it. This mat can track the movements of the center of pressure over time to provide a quantified measure of postural stability.

Senior kinesiology majors Ryan Brem and Andrew Chappell laid the groundwork for the study over the summer. The work is continuing this semester with the addition of Cheryl Duncan to the research team. McLean worked with the students to design the research project and developed a computer program to analyze the data.

McLean says that in addition to better understanding the effect of hippotherapy on autistic children the study will give them a better understanding of how to use the equipment they have. He noted that the same research approach could be applied to other populations that R.O.C.K. serves, such as children with cerebral palsy, stroke victims or wounded veterans.

Both research projects stemmed from a meeting last spring between staff members at R.O.C.K. and several Southwestern faculty members to see how R.O.C.K. might better partner with Southwestern. Many Southwestern students, staff and faculty members have already been involved with the organization as volunteers since it was founded in 1998. Two former Southwestern administrators, George and Barbara Brightwell, donated the land about a mile from campus where R.O.C.K. is located.

“We love Southwestern, but we had not done any collaborative projects with them,” says Nancy Krenek, therapy director at R.O.C.K. “This has been a win-win situation for both of us. I’m so proud of the Southwestern students – they have done a great job.”

McLean says the partnership is a “natural connection” for his department since many kinesiology majors plan to go into physical therapy. “This gives them a chance to get clinical experience and research experience in the same place,” he says. “There is a lot each of us can gain from being part of this.”

Muir-Broaddus says the partnership also gives her students the opportunity to see what real clinical research is like. They also get to see what it is like to work with a team of health professionals and with real families. R.O.C.K. has physical therapists as well as speech and language specialists on staff to work with the children.

As a horse owner herself, Muir-Broaddus has been just as excited about the project.

“There is so much excitement out there (at R.O.C.K.),” she says. “They really believe in what they are doing. It’s kind of contagious.”

Muir-Broaddus says that if R.O.C.K. has solid research, it might help the organization get more funding. The main limitation of the Southwestern research is that there is no control group – a problem she hopes to address next semester.

Krenek says she hopes to display a poster with the latest research results at the center. Already, Krenek has a poster on her wall that McLean helped her with last spring. The poster won first place for research posters at the American Hippotherapy Association Conference in Atlanta last May.

Krenek hopes to partner with other Southwestern departments such as the Education Department in the future. Anthropology major Hannah Yterdal also plans to do research for her capstone project at R.O.C.K. next spring.