Student Well-Being

To Combat Obesity, Mayo Clinic Creates Unusual Classroom

By Christina A. Samuels — April 11, 2006 1 min read
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The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and a neighboring school district have teamed up to create a “classroom of the future” that researchers hope can combat youth obesity.

Twenty-five 4th and 5th graders from Elton Hills Elementary School in the Rochester school district spent March 13-24 in a sports club’s floor-hockey rink, which had been converted for them into a high-tech classroom. Students were able to stroll as they listened to lessons their teachers had recorded for their donated iPod listening devices made by Apple Computer, Inc. Personal laptop computers allowed them to sprawl out as they worked, if they chose. And special desks provided a work surface, but the children had no chairs. Some knelt or balanced on exercise balls to use the desks.

The students are using the same principles in their regular classroom now, said Dr. James A. Levine, an obesity researcher who considers the two-week experiment a rousing success.

“It is the most exciting thing I’ve ever done,” said Dr. Levine, who is a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine.

Dr. Levine has focused his obesity research on how people burn calories doing the normal activities of daily life—what he terms non-exercise-activity thermogenesis, or NEAT. One of the research questions he wanted to explore was whether children really needed to sit at desks to learn.

Minnesota’s 16,100-student Rochester district was immediately receptive to his idea, Dr. Levine said. He’s been amazed, he added, at the response of the children. Instead of being distracted by all the high-tech gadgets, he said, “it’s the opposite: The kids become super-focused.”

The reconfigured classroom doesn’t compel children to move as they learn, but it gives them the opportunity to do so, he said.

Dr. Levine will measure the students’ fitness levels before and after the project. He’s also gotten inquiries about introducing similar programs in other states. “There’s a real desire to do this,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2006 edition of Education Week

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