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Students learn to think on their feet

by Jessie L. Bonner
| June 6, 2010 9:00 PM

IDAHO FALLS - In a handful of classrooms nationwide, students are learning to think on their feet.

Sixth graders at a small private school in southern Idaho stand while crunching math problems. They lean over waist-tall work stations to compare answers with classmates. And whenever they feel the need to sit, they prop themselves up onto tall stools and slip their sneakers into swinging footrests, rocking them back and forth.

"It's not normal for students, or even necessarily for adults, to sit still for long periods of time," their teacher Jim Oloff said.

In states such as Idaho, Minnesota and Wisconsin, some teachers have replaced the standard classroom desk with height-adjustable work stations, which they hope will offer notorious fidgeters some relief for their antsy tendencies.

The Hope Lutheran School in southeastern Idaho has taken the trend a step further.

During math, 11-year-old Dylan Trowbridge stood for the most of the lesson. His classmate, 12-year-old Jane Hula, sat while one leg was swinging her footrest back and forth. In the front of the room, 11-year-old Anya Brown was perched on her stool.

"They give you more room so I don't get cramped in one place," Brown said.

Twice a month, Oloff's sixth graders step on a scale and a researcher from a federal laboratory records their weight and height. The kids clip pedometers onto their belts each day when class starts and record how many steps they've taken before they leave, information that can be used to determine how active they are and how many calories they've burned.

The Idaho National Laboratory has been collecting data since January and while the students think they're part of a fitness study, Oloff has also been monitoring their attention and concentration skills, along with how well they interact.

The lab is collaborating with the Mayo Clinic on the study, which will compare students before and after the stand-up desks were installed. The lab plans to release the findings in October.

Researchers for years have studied the so-called "stand-up" desks with adults, who in some cases work at stations fitted over standard treadmills, but the data being collected from Idaho students could provide crucial information on how this works in the classroom, said Dr. James Levine, an obesity researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Could the stand-up desks play a role in the fight against childhood obesity? Do students really focus better when they're allowed to move around a bit?

"It's the first, real-world, large-scale study of what will be the future of education," said Levine, who purchased a used Sears treadmill for $350 and assembled his own walking desk after publishing a study that found that thin people were on their feet an average of two hours more and burned 350 more calories daily than obese people.

Things as small as pacing or fidgeting made a difference, according to the study.

"I'm one of these people that's 100 percent positive the obesity epidemic can end," said Levine, who walks a mile each hour at his desk.

In Wisconsin, a middle school in Somerset introduced a few of the stand-up desks in 2008, after fifth-grade reading teacher Pam Seekel heard them and secured some grant money to buy them.

"I had a student who could not sit still. He wanted to pace the room and it drove everybody crazy, he'd even read and pace," Seekel said.

The new work station allowed the student just enough movement to free up his brain so he could learn, said Seekel said, who also noticed that the taller desks kept her from having to bend over to help her students.

The cost of the work stations - anywhere from $250 to $500 - present a problem with money tight at schools around the county.

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