Beyond the Classroom: Inspiring Curiosity

Avelino Amado explains how a running shoe interacts with one's foot 

August 27, 2018

When Avelino Amado arrived on the UMass Amherst campus in 2006 as an undergrad with an interest in physical therapy, he had no idea how his experience would one day lead him to encourage young minds to follow in his footsteps. Twelve years later Lino, as his friends and colleagues call him, is on his way to completing his PhD in Kinesiology with a focus on human motor control while piloting an on-campus initiative to introduce more kids into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) programs. That’s why, on a recent muggy summer morning, Lino found himself leading a group of high school students from Springfield through the labs and research centers inside the Totman Building, home of the kinesiology department at UMass Amherst.

In 2017, while attending the national conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston on a UMass scholarship, an idea struck him. An active volunteer in the Springfield community through the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Lino began to wonder how he might be able to combine his dual passion for volunteerism and science to make a broader impact in the community. He sought advice from James Lightfoot, an academic advisor with Springfield Technical Community College, which ultimately led to a meeting with Dinah Moore, Project Director of the Big 3 STEM Pipeline Initiative at the Springfield chapter of the National Urban League. Together, the three developed a plan to bring teenagers onto campus to show them the potential benefits of pursuing a higher education in STEM.

“I see myself in these kids,” Lino explained. “They’re from a community that’s not necessarily wealthy and they’re in a position to gain more knowledge.”

Moore agreed, saying, “I love seeing kids learn. Imagine what the world would be like if all students were given the same educational access? Unfortunately, this is not the case, as access is something that not all kids receive, especially when it comes to education, specifically in the STEM concentrations. Being able to provide the Big 3 STEM Pipeline Initiative students with access to STEM knowledge and a hands-on experience that they might not otherwise receive puts a definite smile on my face.“

Lino’s quest to inspire curiosity led this group of teenagers into the Totman labs, where Lino has been a steady fixture for a number of years. He organized a talk with fellow doctoral candidate Carl Jewell, who helped explain the science behind the design of a standard running shoe. Throughout the talk, the kinesiology researchers tried to get the students to think outside of what they see and to question its purpose and design: How is the support structured? How is the tread design calculated? Why do the materials matter? How does all of this combine to benefit the runner?

“What I try to get out of these kids is for them to think about being more than a consumer,” Lino says. “With the shoe example, I wanted them to think about the person who researches the shoe, the person who designs the shoe, the person who markets the shoe. It’s often hard to think of all the different components that go into something so mundane.”

Throughout the tour, Lino challenged the students to seek more from their education – not to just ask “what” but also to ask “why.”

“Understandably, I think teachers in a classroom are so focused on getting through the material that they don’t always have the time to provide the mentorship kids need. Mentorship is something I greatly value having had some awesome mentors throughout my teenage years and here at UMass,” he says. “As a mentor now, I ask kids to question ‘why do I need this and how do I use it’ instead of ‘how do I do this’ and then later try to figure out why it matters.”

Inspired by his personal experiences, Lino also addressed health and wellness, arranging discussions on physical activity and the long-term health benefits associated with it with Drs. Elroy Aguiar and John Sirard and members of their Physical Activity and Health Lab. He admits, “I’ve struggled with my weight my whole life. Being from a culture that traditionally serves carbohydrate-rich foods like rice and beans with most meals and encourages you to clean your plate, it creates a mindset that stays with you your whole life.” Understanding many in the group have similar backgrounds and live in what is traditionally defined as a food desert, Lino led an open discussion about why it is important to start healthy habits at a young age and what kind of effects these habits can have on people as they grow older.

“I value having a connection with these kids that is more personal and realistic. I enjoy being very upfront with them, joking around and helping them realize that I am also a person who has made mistakes. And it’s okay, as long as you learn from them.”

Lino feels that this partnership with the Urban League of Springfield is just the first step toward creating a life-changing program. “I’d like to see this initiative evolve into a week-long summer lab experience where these kids are more immersed in the academic and college culture.”

Exposing teens to a college campus benefits more than just them, he explains; it benefits the university as well. “Diversity is a good thing. Through diversity, you get new ideas and new experiences. And isn’t that what a great university is all about?”