Summer UCARE stipend jump-starts Elizabeth Hoffman’s thesis research

Summer UCARE stipend jump-starts Elizabeth Hoffman’s thesis research

05 Sep 2017    By Kelcey Buck

While other students used their summers to work, travel, and take a break from school, Elizabeth Hoffman spent part of hers conducting research for her upcoming senior thesis thanks to a stipend from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Undergraduate Creative Activities and Research Experience (UCARE) Program. 

Hoffman, a senior speech-language pathology major from Lincoln, was one of 88 students selected for UCARE stipends for summer research. Her project, titled “Orofacial and hand force dynamics in neurotypical children,” focuses on learning about the muscle forces in the lower lip and thumb-finger pinch in children ages 7-12 without neurological damage or brain injuries. Steven Barlow, Corwin Moore Professor in special education and communication disorders, conceived and designed the project, and serves as Hoffman’s faculty mentor on the research.

With the help of the UCARE stipend and guidance from Barlow, Hoffman tested 11 children for her study. Her research is ongoing, however, with the goal to test a total of 24 children by the end of the fall semester. After that, she’ll work on the data analysis before completing her undergraduate thesis in time for its March due date.

For the testing of the lower lip muscles, Hoffman uses a wireless sensor technology developed at Nebraska by Barlow and Jake Greenwood that measures the forces children exert when they push their lip against its tray. A separate device with a small sensor is held between a child’s thumb and index finger to measure the muscle forces of the thumb-finger pinch.

“It is a visually guided motor task,” Hoffman explained. “The two devices connect to a laptop using Bluetooth, so the child has a screen with a red target line where they want to get their muscle forces to reach, kind of like a video game. They see the target line, then either by moving their lip muscles or squeezing their fingers, they can see their muscle forces on the screen as well.”

Hoffman’s research project examines both how quickly and how accurately the children can match their muscle forces to a given target. Lower targets were selected to ensure the measured forces are associated with fine motor movements, such as speech.

While the devices Hoffman used in her project have been used in various age ranges of adult populations, research does not currently exist for children.

“The focus of this study is to get normative data on what typical children’s fine muscles look like in the lips and hand,” Hoffman said. “This is really useful because it can be used as a basis of comparison for children who have disease or damage that affects their motor movements. Since there is already some data on young and older adult populations, this can also be used to get an idea of how fine motor control develops over the lifespan.”

Being part of a developmental study is one of the reasons Hoffman chose this project in the first place.

“I’ve always been interested in the brain and biology, and this study is in the Communication Neuroscience Laboratories so it piqued my interest,” Hoffman said. “I also liked the developmental piece of it as far as thinking about how children’s fine motor skills develop over time. Then to be able to compare that to adults and see some of the changes is pretty fascinating.”

Anyone interested in having their child participate in the orofacial and hand force dynamics project may email Hoffman or Barlow to schedule a session. The entire testing procedure takes about an hour, and parents receive a $10 payment for their child’s participation.

To learn more about Nebraska's UCARE program, click here.

Special Education and Communication Disorders