Computer Science Professor & Student Create Stretch Break App

by Lauren Daley ’05

Five years ago, Stonehill Computer Science Professor Robert Dugan started feeling pain in his elbows.

Then the headaches started.

Soon, the then-42-year-old had sharp pain in his shoulders and neck, and numbness in his hands.

He was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition that involves pain in the neck and shoulder, numbness and tingling of the fingers, and a weak grip. The thoracic outlet is the area between the rib cage and collar bone. According to the Mayo Clinic, one cause of the syndrome is repetitive movement, such as typing on a computer for extended periods.

Dugan went to one of the top thoracic outlet syndrome doctors in the nation at Massachusetts General Hospital, who, after five years of trying various other options, finally decided last month that there was no other solution for Dugan but to operate. In June, Dugan had his first rib moved, muscles taken out of his neck, and other neck muscles cut into.

Serious Surgery

“It was pretty serious surgery,” said Dugan, in a phone interview from his home where he is recuperating. Complete recovery will take one full year. “I have a lot of swelling in my neck and ribs right now. My brain is trying to figure out what happened.”

What really happened, of course, was 30 years of “poor use of self” at the computer, Dugan said-slouching, typing with his arms at the wrong angle, looking at the computer in a way that was giving him a stiff neck, sitting for prolonged periods of time, and so on.

Three years ago, Dugan asked his students about how they felt when they used their computers. He did so at a time he was trying to improve his “use of self” when working at a computer and he started noticing how poorly the students were using themselves.

That’s when he asked one of his freshman computer science classes how many of them had pain when they worked at a computer-two-thirds of the room raised their hands. When he asked one of his upperclassmen classes, 100 percent of hands went up.

Take Advil, Do Homework

“One student said he couldn’t do his homework without Advil. What scares me is that I had no problems in college. What will they be like down the line?” said Dugan, now 47.

“I didn’t start using a computer until I was 14, whereas most of these kids have already had 17 years of pretty poor use of self. People develop repetitive stress injuries when they use computers in an unhealthy way. Most people are unaware of what they’re doing. So I started doing some research.”

In researching stress injuries and ergonomics, Dugan found Karen Jacobs, a renowned occupational therapist at Boston University. Jacobs told him that she had worked with psychologist Arthur Saltzman on a computer program called “Stretch Break,” which reminded computer users to get up and stretch at certain intervals.

Smart App

“I downloaded it for $45 for my PC,” Dugan said. “It’s great. It will stop your computer, remind you to get up. It shows animated people doing stretches on the screen. We felt the same, that there should be an iPhone and iPad app like this for kids, so they grow up aware of this problem.”

He immediately thought of his student, Doug Bodkin ’13, whose dream is to work at Apple, and who had written an iPhone/iPad app already. Jacobs put Dugan and Bodkin in touch with Saltzman, who agreed to donate the “Stretch Break” content, including animation and text, for Bodkin to write into an app. Dugan and Bodkin worked together in an independent study this past spring.

The result? “Stretch Break for Kids” is available now in the iTunes App Store for free download. The app allows the user to set “stretch breaks” at certain intervals, say, every 30 minutes. At that point, a text message-like reminder will pop onto the screen, telling the young user to stop and stretch. By touching the text, animated children pop on the screen and lead the kids in stretching exercises.

Student Input

“I was honored that Professor Dugan thought of me. He knows my dream is to work at Apple, and he knew this would look good on my resume,” said Bodkin, 21, of Marlboro, Mass., who has been writing computer programs since middle school.

Bodkin has already written the iPhone/iPad app “Tasuku”- a student organizer available now in the iTunes App Store. He’s currently working on a space game, “Operation Pluto.” It took him about six months to create “Stretch Break.”

Bodkin is working to make the app available in Chinese, Spanish, French, Arabic, and Hebrew. Saltzman wants to make a commercial version of the app for adults with Bodkin, and agreed to split the profits 50-50 with Bodkin.

“Since I already have the foundation, it will only take me a couple weeks, tops, to make the adult version,” Bodkin said.

Healthy Computer Use

Having learned the hard way, Dugan now feels an ethical responsibility to address the health consequences of “bad self use” when working with technology. To that end, he has created a course titled “Healthy Computer Use for Computer Scientists,” which is being now offered to all rising juniors.

“As we interact with technology, we need to stress the importance of better body techniques. I hope this course educates students about the risks and challenges of “poor self use” and that it helps to reduce health problems, such as I have experienced,” Dugan explained.