Laramie Middle School physical education is more than rope climbs and dodge ball these days, as a fleet of 26 mountain bikes is now part of the curriculum.
Last fall, the school received the bikes from an organization called Outride, a nonprofit started by Specialized Bicycle Components in 2015. Outride offers a school-based cycling program called Riding for Focus, which aims to use cycling as a tool to boost middle school student success.
Outride also supports research into the benefits of cycling for youth, especially in the treatment of ADHD. Some of that research is happening in Laramie right now.
In addition to bikes, the middle school also received helmets, pumps, repair kits, tubes and training for PE teacher Jamie Simmons, who is leading all LMS 7th graders through the cycling unit this fall.
“It’s a really good social-distance activity, and we can be outside,” she said.
Students start by learning how to conduct a safety inspection and check for maintenance issues before they ride. Then they learn concepts like scanning for cars, signaling, stopping at intersections and weaving.
Simmons has taken students from campus to neighborhood streets to the nearby Cirrus Sky Trail. On a couple Fridays, during which students aren’t required to attend in-person school under Tier II learning, Simmons has gathered a few students for longer rides to the Schoolyard Trails east of town.
“We’ve taken a couple kids back there that just want to ride,” she said.
Simmons said some students have learned to ride a bike for the first time during the program, and some don’t have bikes at home. Those with more experience have the opportunity to take on a mentorship role.
“I think it’s something special to our school that we have them,” she said.
The bikes are getting heavy use this fall between daily PE classes and during a new afterschool bike club led by math teacher Jacey Meyers and social studies teacher Evan Townsend.
Meyers said up to two dozen students attend the club for the opportunity to ride to the Schoolyard Trails. She’s watched students challenge themselves, try new things and work as a team.
“Some students really need this to grow personally, so we’ve been able to see that as well,” she said.
Townsend said the club has attracted students who don’t participate in the school’s traditional sports offerings and perhaps don’t feel like they fit in at school.
“It’s really cool to see them light up and feel like they’re part of the team and have something to do after school,” he said.
Cynthia Hartung, a professor in the University of Wyoming Department of Psychology, helped Simmons write the initial grant last year. With additional funding from Outride, Hartung plans to study how high-intensity interval training on a bike, also known as HIIT, can impact executive functioning in middle school students.
Executive functions include things like memory, attention, self-control and flexible thinking. Those with ADHD struggle in these areas. Hartung is already conducting similar research on college students in her UW lab.
“What we’re finding with college students is it’s having a significant impact on their executive functioning skills,” she said. “They’re improving after HIIT in ways that they’re not improving without the interval training.”
Hartung said the research shows promise in pointing to regular exercise as another way to treat ADHD.
“The hope is that for some people who don’t want to take medication or don’t respond to medication, it’s possible that exercise could serve as an alternative to medication,” she said.
Meanwhile, Tristan Wallhead, a professor in the UW Division of Kinesiology and Health, is also conducting Outride-funded research on the efficacy of the Riding for Focus program itself.
During the initial phase of the two-year project, he’s looking at whether instruction during a PE class leads students to greater participation in the same activities outside the classroom. The afterschool club is the perfect testing ground for such a question, he said.
“If we offer them an activity that’s the same as PE, will they do it?” he said.
The target demographic is students who aren’t already participating in other school-sponsored activities.
“Is this an attractant for them to get out and do something a little bit different, beyond team and organized sports? That’s an interesting question for me,” he said.
Laramie BikeNet has a youth cycling committee that’s supporting the efforts at the middle school. Committee member Doug Scambler said BikeNet is currently pursuing funding to build a mountain bike trail near the middle school.