In Sports, Engineering Gets Drafted for a Winning Edge

West Point,  used by permission

West Point, used by permission

Engineering and Sports Go Long

The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat … the coefficient of drag? Engineering principles have always shaped outcomes on fields of play. Now, as technology of all shapes, sizes, and uses floods the sports world, engineering and sports have become a public couple, brought out from the back rooms of testing into headlines and TV screens everywhere. From Skycam to Major League Baseball’s StatCast to wearable sensors, engineering tools and ideas pervade the sports experiences we have as both spectators and participants.

Sports as a Teaching Tool

Befitting a team sited near the launch pad of so much cutting-edge technology, the San Francisco 49ers are sports-world pioneers in STEM education. At their new stadium and in the Bay area at large, the team runs a triple-threat STEM offense with its 49ers Leadership Institute. Featuring informal education, classroom learning, and a school partnership, the team offers a comprehensive STEM education operation aimed at augmenting local education and workforce development activities supporting the Silicon Valley tech economy.

See the Stadium, Learn STEM

Through the on-site portion of the Leadership Institute, the 49ers bring about 300 students per week through Levi’s Stadium for rich, football-based STEM learning experiences. The students tour the facility, learning how it’s engineered for sustainability with green technologies like a roof with plants on it, a live dashboard showing current energy usage, and solar panels that power stadium operations.

     A visit to the 49ers Museum includes demonstrations of the engineering behind making football equipment and how acceleration, mass, and velocity affect winning and losing on the football field.

     In the stadium’s classroom, outfitted with touch-based video worktables, students get richly interactive lessons about connections between STEM fields and football – helmet design, making a football, how physics shapes the path that a ball – thrown or kicked – takes through the air, and much else. The lessons are aligned with Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards, part of a sophisticated curriculum that proves both fun and educational for students.

Going to Football School

Extending the reach of the Institute to the community, the 49ers have collaborated with Chevron and the Silicon Valley Educational Foundation to launch operations down the road at a Santa Clara middle school. New this fall, the program at Cabrillo Middle School will take students from seventh grade through high school graduation, six years of STEM-heavy schooling designed to set them up for successful post-secondary STEM studies and smooth entry into the technical workforce.

     An innovative force on the field since the days of Bill Walsh and Joe Montana, the 49ers have also become breakaway leaders among professional sports teams in the field of STEM education.

Protecting the Brain

J E Theriot,  used by permission

J E Theriot, used by permission

For a game that uses a player’s head as a blunt-force instrument, football took a long time to treat brain safety as a real issue. Now, though, it is a matter of urgency and extensive research. The National Football League runs a Head, Neck, and Spine Committee that administers several research efforts. And one prominent researcher in the field has noted, “You can hardly throw a rock at a university without hitting someone who is working on the helmet problem. Engineers are looking at impact videos wherever they can get them.” This run-down from Sport Techie highlights seven projects under way at universities.

     One leader in the field is Virginia Tech, which conducts a trademarked helmet safety rating program, bringing engineering methods and principles to rigorous assessments of relative concussion risks among over two dozen adult helmets on the market.  Players with engineering backgrounds are getting in on the effort, and it’s a become a topic even for 6th-grade classrooms. This run-down from Sport Techie highlights seven projects under way at colleges and universities.

Saving Lives

One of the great success stories in safety-related sports engineering has occurred at NASCAR speedways. Developed by an Auburn engineering professor, Dean Sicking, the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barrier is made up of steel tubes and closed-cell polystyrene, and it attaches directly to existing concrete walls. It is designed to dissipate the energy of a car hitting the wall across the greatest possible surface area, minimizing the risk of injury to the driver and damage to the car. The SAFER wall also keeps the car from rebounding back into the flow of race traffic.

     Developed and installed after Dale Earnhardt was killed in the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, the SAFER barrier has been an instrumental part of measures that have since zeroed out fatalities at NASCAR races.

As Good as Your Tools

Sports equipment has to be designed, built, and tested to ensure it’s optimized for the best possible performance during competition. This is nuts-and-bolts engineering work, with ever-greater stakes as the rewards for winning in sports keep getting bigger. From the 1.5-ounce golf ball to grand America’s Cup yachts, equipment is subject to extensive, sophisticated engineering processes and assessments.

     In fact, defending America’s Cup champion Oracle Team USA recently announced a partnership with Airbus to bring the airplane manufacturer’s engineering expertise to the design and building of new boats for the 2015 races.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

In 2008 and 2009, the widespread use of full-body, polyurethane swimsuits engineered for maximum buoyancy and minimum drag enabled swimmers to blow up world records at an unprecedented rate. They set 25 world records at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 43 more the next year at the Rome World Championships. A triumph of materials engineering, the new suits nevertheless wreaked havoc on competitive norms and were banned as of the end of 2009.

The Next Wave of Sports Engineering

Performance is a function of both equipment and what the athlete’s body can do. The advent of small, durable, and cheap sensors, combined with Bluetooth Smart connections to mobile apps, has made it possible for anyone swinging a tennis racket, bat, or golf club to gather reams of sophisticated data on swing mechanics.

Sam Churchill,  used by permission

Sam Churchill, used by permission

     Unobtrusive attachments, these sensors transmit data to apps that can model the swing in three dimensions, track speed, angle, and time to impact, record contact points, and capture many other swing elements. Able to pause in the middle of a practice session to assess performance, people can get immediate feedback on where they’re going wrong, if and how they’re improving their technique, and what else they might need to work on.

     These sensors make previously invisible flaws in technique easy to see and understand; correcting them is still up to the will and skill of the player, of course.

There’s a Major for That

The field of sports engineering is new and growing fast. According to the International Sports Engineering Association, formed in 2002, most people in the field bring a mechanical engineering background to their work. The association defines “sports engineering” as “the technical application of maths and physics to solve sporting problems.” A node of activity is Sheffield Hallam University in England, where the ISEA is headquartered.

Your Sports Engineering Triumphs?

Sports have always been a rigorous proving ground for well designed equipment and highly trained bodies. Always integral to the former, engineering has become vital to the latter, as well, as wearable tech proliferates ever more cheaply, sporting events get the big data treatment, and advances in materials proceed apace. Sports is a great fit for kids with an engineering bent, and engineering can excite kids with a sports bent, too. Have you had any success with bringing sports into your engineering world? Love to hear about it.

If you liked this piece, we invite you to sign up at the top of the page to receive email updates for new blog posts and other, occasional news items from us.

Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at