Tech Scene

Flying Lessons

Olympic training software gets students pumped—for science.

By John Chandler May 19, 2009 Published in the January 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Dartfish

TO FINE-TUNE his giant slalom for the 2006 Olympics, Bode Miller relied on a secret weapon. No, not the kind you inject: Dartfish, a software program that about 95 percent of Olympic athletes use to analyze their biomechanics and improve their performance. Now they’re not the only ones.

Sherwood High School is using the software not to bulk up biceps but rather to train brains. While attending a computer education conference this summer, teacher Terrel Smith signed Sherwood up to be one of 10 schools in the country to road test Dartfish for its possible classroom applications. They appear to be many: Dartfish breaks down motion on a video screen frame by frame and allows the user to calculate things like vectors, trajectory, speed, angles and arcs—all concepts that set most high schoolers snoozing. But analyze the performance of a skateboard daredevil and you’ve suddenly got their attention.

“Students live in a video world,” Smith says, pointing to YouTube as an example. “Dartfish allows them to work in a technology-rich environment, one that they’re already familiar with.”

Of course, not all the footage that students watch is so benign. In one recent class, Sherwood junior Nik Pittioni’s analyzes a clip of former Mariners pitcher Randy Johnson’s fastball meeting a bird midflight. Gasps can be heard as the bird explodes into a cloud of feathers. “We can see at this angle,” says Pittioni, diagramming the doomed pigeon’s flight plan on-screen, “that the bird and the ball may have been traveling at approximately the same speed.” It’s a gruesome variation of the two-trains-leaving-the-station calculation, but it’s also effective. There’s nary a droopy lid among the onlookers by the time Pittioni is done.

But such nifty classroom toys don’t come cheap: Dartfish normally retails for $4,500, although Sherwood finagled eight copies for $6,000. Still, says Smith, who was named Oregon Technology Educator of the Year in 2007, “It gets the kids jazzed; it gets their juices flowing.” And, apparently, their feathers flying.

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