Bulletin News

Student Researches Motor Skills of Native American Children


Larissa True, assistant professor of kinesiology, shared stories of her own graduate research studying motor skills in children with one of her Introduction to Kinesiology classes this past school year.

SUNY Cortland senior exercise science major Meagan Smith was hooked. She wanted to conduct a similar study in her own community.

A member of the Tuscarora Nation who attended high school in Niagara Falls, N.Y., she approached True after class and asked if she could work on a related project with a particular focus on Native American children.

One of 10 SUNY Cortland students awarded a 2017 Summer Research Fellowship, Smith has compared fundamental motor skills of Onondaga Nation children to those of children from around Cortland County.

“I wanted to find something to help my community get healthier,” Smith said. “There is a lot of obesity in kids and adults in the Onondaga Nation. I wanted to find a way to bring a healthy lifestyle there.”

To gather data for their research, Smith and True asked children aged 3 to 11 to complete a series of 13 physical tasks called the test of gross motor development-3 (third edition), from running, skipping and jumping to dribbling a basketball and throwing a tennis ball. Then, the subjects sat down with Smith and True to subjectively evaluate their own motor skills with a test called the pictorial scale of perceived motor competence.

The physical portion of the study was captured on video so Smith and True can accurately evaluate the performance of each subject. For example, when a subject is asked to throw a tennis ball, Smith and True considered if the subject took a step first, notice if the step was ipsilateral or contralateral and look for a follow-through.

One afternoon this summer, Smith and True ran through the motor skills test with a pair of female subjects in a dance studio at Park Center. The process took about one hour and they later spent additional time breaking down the video for further analysis.

“This particular motor skill test has rarely been used in Native American populations,” True said. “In order to validate the test, we need as many subjects as possible. The nice thing about our study is that we can run this test as long as we have a large space. One thing we’re hoping to do is to continue to collect data throughout Meagan’s senior year at Cortland. Our plan is to continue going until we’re happy with the amount of data we’ve collected.”

SUNY Cortland’s Undergraduate Research Council was established in 2006. Over the last decade, exactly 100 students have been awarded summer research fellowships. Students and faculty will present their findings at “Transformations: A Student Research and Creativity Conference” during the spring semester and may also be invited to speak about their work at conferences around the country.

Other student research projects at SUNY Cortland this summer cover a wide range of academic disciplines, including adolescent education history, biology, biomedical sciences, chemistry, mathematics, physics and studio art.

By mid-July, Smith said that she hadn’t gathered enough data to draw any definite conclusions from her research. The aim of this project, however, is to compare the motor competence of children between cultures. From there, Smith hopes that the data may be useful in finding better methods for encouraging physical activity in Native American cultures.

This past spring, Smith reached out to officials at the Onondaga Nation School to ask for their help. A summer recreational program for Onondaga Nation children presented the perfect opportunity to gather data for this study.

Smith and True plan to also test subjects in elementary schools around Cortland County once they open in September.

“I’ve never done a comparison study and this was a unique opportunity,” True said. “It wasn’t something where I could just show up on the Nation and say this is what I want to do. Meagan did an awesome job of introducing me to her community. We attended a PTA meeting together.”

True was awarded a Ph.D. in kinesiology from Michigan State University in 2014 and has taught at SUNY Cortland for the last three years. This is True’s first time serving as a summer research mentor at SUNY Cortland, but she had worked extensively with undergraduates doing her graduate research at Michigan State.

“The undergrad research program is very lucrative for our students,” True said. “Something like this is going to look great on a job application or on grad school applications.”

After graduating with an associate’s degree in exercise science from Onondaga Community College in 2016, Smith transferred to SUNY Cortland. 

Smith will continue her research throughout the school year and will graduate in 2018. Graduate school or a career in exercise science are just a few of Smith’s options after that. At the moment, Smith is most focused on giving back to her community. That has been at the heart of this research from the start.

“I've been looking at exercise physiology,” she said. “I want to work with my community and help our members with chronic disease get a little healthier.”