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How to Teach Heart Physiology with Smart Watches and Apps

This fitness-minded professor uses technology to help Millennials wrap their heads around how the heart functions—and what it means for their health.


Noelle L. Cutter, PhD

Associate Professor of Biology and Chemistry, Molloy College, Long Island, New York

PhD in Molecular Genetics, MS in Genetics, BS in Biology, minor in Chemistry

It would be an understatement to say that Noelle Cutter has diverse and compelling interests—among them higher education, technology, and fitness. She is also a motivational speaker, clinical researcher, and mother of four children under the age of seven. So when smart watches, such as Fitbit trackers, the Apple Watch, and Garmin, emerged on the market, this ultrarunner and self-described “budding triathlete” needed no convincing to give them a try.

While Cutter at first used fitness technology in her own training (to track her heart rate, blood pressure, and mileage), she recently found a way to incorporate it into some of the courses she teaches at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, New York. And the results have been heartwarming.

The benefits of tech gadgets in the classroom

Thanks to her tech savvy, Cutter has an edge when it comes to working with freshmen biology majors. Many of them are also athletes who are adept at using smart watches, Fitbits, and other fitness trackers. Even those who do not fit this description are likely to have a smartphone handy at all times—so Cutter found a way to integrate student devices into some of her lessons.

“If you really want to get students excited about the heart—or any lab—bring in tech, and let them use it to learn,” she says. Cutter encourages her students to use their own smart watches and fitness trackers during heart physiology labs, in particular, to help make the work more interactive. It helps students understand and apply what they are learning in a very personalized way. “Often, when students see how [fitness trackers] can apply to their lives, they say, ‘Look at how my heart is working!’” Cutter says.


Course: BIO 126 General Biology I

Frequency: Two class meetings per week: 3 hours of lecture, 3 hours of lab

Class size: 60–80 students in lectures; 20 students per lab period

Course description: A study of basic biological mechanisms at the cellular and molecular levels. Covers the organization of cells, cellular energy metabolism, cellular reproduction and genetics. (Taken with BIO 127 to complete the full-year course.)

See resources shared by Noelle L. Cutter, PhD

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Cutter’s high-tech heart physiology lab

The lecture portion of Cutter’s introductory biology course is delivered to the class as a large group of 60 to 80 students. There, Cutter shows slides, explains concepts, leads discussions, and then breaks the class into small groups for their lab work. At this point, Cutter is largely hands-off: She allows the students to work through lab problems themselves, in their cooperative learning groups.

Here are some specifics on the way Cutter uses technology to help students understand the complex physiology of the human heart.

Let digital images augment hands-on work

Cutter begins the heart physiology lab with a review of the heart’s anatomy. She explains the different structures and the purpose of each, then provides students with three-dimensional plastic hearts they can take apart (and reassemble), piece by piece.

At the same time, Cutter has students use their own tablets, smartphones, and/or laptops to access an interactive 3-D heart. They then can reference the digital images and information as they analyze the structures in the plastic model.

Use videos as a training tool

Now the students are ready for the real thing: They split into groups of four to dissect a sheep heart. For each step, Cutter shows a short video clip, then pauses it as students follow her example. They make the first cut, and then open up the heart. Cutter points out the chambers, valves, vessels, and walls, and circulates among the groups as students show her what they have done.

Using tech to do a personal heart check

Next, students evaluate their own hearts using their smart watches or trackers. (Students are generally willing to share their gadgets with those who do not have one.) Cutter breaks this part of the lesson into five segments:

  • Step 1: Auscultating. First, she shows the class how to use a stethoscope, which students use to auscultate (listen to) their own hearts. Cutter then explains how the heart’s activities produce the “lub-dub” sounds they hear.
  • Step 2: Finding pulse points. Next, Cutter identifies the nine pulse points on the human body.
  • Step 3: Palpating. The students use that information to determine and record their pulses by palpating (pressing on) the carotid, brachial, and radial arteries (at the neck, elbow, and wrist).
  • Step 4: Calculating pulse deficit. Using a stethoscope, the students find their resting heart rates from their apical pulse, located between the ribs. With this number, they calculate, record, and define their pulse deficit and explain its significance. (Pulse deficit is the difference, recorded in beats per minute, between the number of heartbeats and the number of heartbeats observed when diseases of the heart are present.) Cutter then asks the students to look at that number in terms of how they feel. Are they dizzy? Hungry? Tired?
  • Step 5: Taking blood pressure. Students download the Qardio app to their phones, and then use the app along with a wireless arm cuff to monitor their blood pressure. The students also check their blood pressure using a blood pressure cuff or standard sphygmomanometer, then finish the exercise by determining whether their blood pressure has any correlation to their heart rate.
Provide them with “heart homework”

Typically, Cutter’s heart physiology lesson takes place before spring break, during which she asks students to check and chart their blood pressure and pulse while doing a variety of everyday activities. She provides specific points in the day to monitor, such as these:

    • When at rest: Record average blood pressure levels over 30-minute periods, taking measurements every five to seven minutes at normal, restful times during the day—e.g., studying, watching TV, or browsing social media. (Cutter shows students how to record their blood pressure using the radial pulse: Place two fingers between the bone and the tendon over the radial artery, which is located on the thumb side of the wrist. Count the number of pulse beats in 15 seconds, then multiply this number by four to calculate heartbeats per minute.)
    • During exercise: When engaging in 30 minutes of exercise (at medium to high intensity, if possible):
      • Record blood pressure at the start and every 30 minutes thereafter, for up to three hours after the activity.
      • Record heart rate at the start, every five to seven minutes during, and at the completion of the 30 minutes, until it returns to resting (pre-exercise) rate.
    • Drinking a caffeinated beverage: To track the effects of caffeine:
      • Record blood pressure before drinking, after drinking, and every 30 minutes for up to six hours post consumption.
      • Record heart rate before drinking, every 5 to 7 minutes while consuming, and at completion until it returns to resting rate.

Cutter asks students to use the data they collect from these exercises to answer the question: “Does your blood pressure have any correlation with your heart rate?”

Show the bigger picture

Cutter ends the discussion about heart rate monitoring by pointing out current fitness niches. She provides the example of SoulCycle indoor cycling studios, where heart rate monitoring is used to track participants’ exertion and drive competition and motivation. She adds that the gym where she trains for her competitive events also provides heart rate monitors for members’ use during their workouts.

“Show [students] how learning about the heart is applicable to something they do,” advises Cutter. This is the key to both current engagement and lifelong retention. “In the end, it’s always about them—what is interesting to them in their lives now.” Find that link, she says, and you just might capture their hearts.

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