The I-Tri Effect Is Demonstrable

After-school exercise and mentoring a boon to girls’ academic performance
Four years after her last visit here, Dr. Jen Gatz reports that her hypothesis has proved true — that after-school exercise and mentoring benefits girls’ performance in science. Craig Macnaughton

When she was last here almost four years ago, Jen Gatz, a science teacher at Patchogue-Medford High School — Dr. Gatz now — told an audience of I-Tri participants and their parents that she hoped her doctoral dissertation would provide evidence that after-school exercise and mentoring programs for teenage girls such as I-Tri’s would result in measurable improvement in science scores.

“My hypothesis was supported,” Dr. Gatz said, with a smile, the other day during a conversation in Aquebogue, where she lives. To wit that “chronic aerobic exercise that these girls are participating in, plus all of the peer mentoring and adult mentoring they receive, increase self-efficacy in science and cognitive processes that improve academic achievement.” 

“Self-efficacy,” she said, was “different from self-esteem. Self-efficacy is confidence in ability for a specific task. You can have increased self-efficacy for fitness; you can have increased self-efficacy for the ability to do science. . . . There have been lots of such studies with older people and with very young children looking at how aerobic exercise affects cognitive processes, but not so many with children in their adolescent years, particularly regarding their ability to do science.”

Dr. Gatz undertook two studies focused on Theresa Roden’s internationally recognized I-Tri program, both of which were peer-reviewed and published within the past two years. 

The first, she said, “was more of a qualitative study looking at confidence, self-efficacy, and motivation, and did I-Tri help to increase all of those things, and did I-Tri’s triathlon training translate into better academic performance. . . . Our study showed that it did. We found that an after-school program like I-Tri is very beneficial, especially for girls at risk for being overweight, for being out of shape, and for not fitting in well socially.”

Moreover, I-Tri’s camaraderie, mentoring, and physical and mental training helped promote “collective efficacy,” Dr. Gatz continued. “All of a sudden, swimming 300 yards, biking seven miles, and running a mile and a half,” as I-Tri participants do each year in a youth triathlon at Noyac’s Long Beach, “become a lot less scary. You see your peers do it and you say to yourself, ‘If she does it, I can.’ . . . We found these confidence-building strategies carried over to their schooling. They studied more and started to do better. The first study has wonderful quotes, though we changed the names to those of my nieces and good friends.”

“Mary,” an eighth grader, told Dr. Gatz that I-Tri had given her the “confidence to be able to know that I can do better. It makes me want to go out and get it, and, like, show myself that I can do it. . . . Before, I would get B’s and C’s, but now I’m A’s all across the board.”

Mary added, “I remember running across the finish line crying hysterically. I never had thought I would be able to do it, but I had done it. . . . If an obstacle is in my way, I’m gonna do whatever I can to overcome it. That was one of the lessons we learned. Doing something you didn’t think you could do is the most amazing feeling in the world.”

“Kate,” a seventh grader, told Dr. Gatz that I-Tri had given her “confidence to do everything and anything basically. . . . When a subject gets kind of hard, at first you’re like, oh man, I don’t know what to do, but I-Tri taught me that when you are so close, like with the race we do, you just have to push on and keep going.”

“Amy,” an eighth grader, told her, “Like everyone I met I had something in common with. And if I didn’t know how to do something, I wasn’t the only one. It felt really good knowing that we would learn together, and that I didn’t need to feel bad about not knowing how to do something.”

“The second study,” said Dr. Gatz, “focused on cognition. I was specifically looking at executive function and the cognitive processes that fall under that umbrella term, such as working memory, the ability to recall information and to keep it in mind . . . the ability to plan and to organize is an executive function, as is the ability to inhibit reactions — to step back and look at all the evidence and think critically about a problem and trying to solve it rather than automatically jump to a conclusion.”

What she found, she said, “was that the physical activity involved in triathlon training acted as a moderator that helped the girls increase their achievement in science, and also improved their problem-solving ability . . . no matter what the problem was.”

There had been a control group in that second study of 30 similarly at-risk girls who were not in I-Tri, Dr. Gatz said, girls faced with a similar curriculum at the same time as were the girls with whom I-Tri was working. “There were 30 girls in each, and when we initially matched their science ability there was no difference, but when I did post-testing to see if the I-Tri group’s cognitive functions had increased, I found they had in comparison to the control group. It was wonderful . . . it was exciting. The studies were peer-reviewed and published. If people want to look at them, they can email me and I’ll share copies with them.” She’s at jengatz@optonline.net.

While she had shown that physical activity had a measurable effect when it came to improved performance in science tests, a more amplified examination of hers was under review now, said Dr. Gatz, a study that looks not only at before and after results, but also at the relationship between physical fitness increments and consequent increments in scientific achievement. 

“The stronger they are aerobically should make a difference,” she said, adding that “this is where most of the research is now, measuring the effects on executive function of chronic aerobic activity over a period of five months, say. This paper has been in review for six months. Hopefully, I’ll hear something, though it could take a couple of months up to two years.”

As for Theresa Roden, who won an award of excellence from the International Triathlon Union this past summer, Dr. Gatz said she’d run into her “at Costco, in Riverhead. I could tell it was her car because it had that pink bike rack on the back. . . . I keep up with her often. She’s started a whole new unit for the I-Tri girls, you know, on the science of triathlon, which partly resulted from the findings we have. Exposing them to science outside of the regular classroom ought to spark their interest and help motivate them in the regular school day.”

I-Tri, which is in its 10th year, now numbers 200 middle school girls in 10 schools on eastern Long Island, the latest additions being in Riverhead, Bridgehampton, and Mastic-Shirley.