PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - DECEMBER 2004 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 4
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Really Cricket

By Thomas K. Grose

MORE AND MORE BRITISH UNIVERSITIES ARE OFFERING DEGREES IN SPORTS ENGINEERING, AND STUDENTS ARE BOWLED OVER BY IT.

BATH, England— In 2000, the University of Bath became one of the first U.K. schools to offer an undergraduate degree in sports engineering. And, initially, it was hardly a home run. A total of just eight students enrolled. "Not all the modules were relevant," recalls Liz Austen, who has since earned the degree and is working for Asics, a sports shoe manufacturer. "We were kind of like guinea pigs."

Things greatly improved in the second year, Austen reports, and she ultimately "really enjoyed it." Despite the first-year glitches, the program caught the fancy of students. Twenty-one were enrolled in 2001, and this year there are 42. "It's very healthy," says Alan N. Bramley, the professor who oversees the department of mechanical engineering's sports, medical, and materials group.

It's a degree that's rapidly proving popular around Britain. At least a dozen British institutions of higher learning now offer bachelor's degrees in sports engineering and/or sports technology—including such top schools as Loughborough University, the University of Strathclyde, and the University of London's Queen Mary College—and similar programs are on deck at several other schools. This fall, the University of Sheffield, a surprising late-comer, given that Sheffield is home to the International Sports Engineering Association, launched its own sports engineering program. Some schools are zeroing in on specific sports niches. Students can earn a degree in motor-sports engineering, for instance, at Lancaster and Cranfield universities, while the University of Plymouth has a degree in marine-sports engineering.

Celeste Baine, author of High Tech Hot Shots: Careers in Sports Engineering, applauds the Brits' initiative, calling it a great trend that may lure students to engineering. "Sports engineering sounds so exciting, and so many areas of engineering don't sound exciting." Indeed, the growth in sports engineering degrees in Britain is powered primarily by student demand. "The [degree's] market is driven by student choice," Bramley explains. "This just jumps out at them."

Most of the programs are built around a core cluster of mechanical engineering courses. Some instructors call sports engineering an emerging subset of mechanical engineering. "The graduate," Bramley says, "is really a mechanical engineering graduate with a slightly different badge on. It's made interesting because they work on sports applications all the way through instead of airplanes or automobiles."

But what graduates learn would allow them to just as easily find work in other industries, such as aerospace and automotive, that use mechanical engineers. Designing pole vaults or golf clubs is not all that different from designing jet planes or cars, Bramley says. "You want the maximum power with the minimum amount of weight." Sheffield's course director, Matt Carre, says that standard mechanical engineering principles like aerodynamics and the behavior of materials regularly come into play when designing sporting goods. Sheffield's program was founded by mechanical engineers "who do a lot of sports-related projects." Carre, for example, has devoted research time to building a better field hockey stick.

But if providing degrees in sports engineering has become a slam-dunk winner for British universities, it's a concept that so far is attracting few fans among U.S. schools. No one interviewed for this story was aware of any American university offering a degree in sports engineering, although several top schools—including MIT and the University of California–Davis—have labs dedicated to the discipline. The Georgia Institute of Technology is considering creating a multidisciplinary minor in the field under the direction of Jani Pallis, a respected sports researcher now at Cislunar Aerospace in California. Pallis, whose background is in mechanical and aeronautical engineering, has in mind a minor that would encompass such areas as mechanical and material engineering and applied physiology. Developing a curriculum from scratch is hard, Pallis says, especially since there is a dearth of textbooks. But she may also be remedying that problem. She and Rutgers University biomedical researcher George K. Hung have a contract with Springer to write a series of 10 to 15 texts on sports applications of biomedical engineering. The first book, Biomedical Engineering Principles in Sports, was recently published.

Roy Jones, who oversees Loughborough's program, says American caution has to do with research differences. "We have a significant research group, which we leverage the funds to do it [the degree program]." There are U.K. schools that don't float their degree programs on the back of research, "but God knows how they do it." But most British academic research—even projects that have some corporate sponsorship—is at least partly backed by government funding. In the United States, Jones says, corporate-backed and state-funded research are often separate affairs, so there's no financial benefit for American companies to go outside their own adequately funded, in-house labs.

But some American academics say the main reason for not offering a degree in sports engineering is there simply is no need for it. "There are reasons not to do it," insists Mont Hubbard, who runs the Sports Biomechanics Lab at the University of California–Davis. He terms the designation confusing. "Sports engineering is mechanical engineering. It's both things rolled into one. Manufacturers don't know what the [sports engineering] degree means. A degree in mechanical engineering: They know what that means." Graduates in biomedical engineering face a similar problem, Hubbard says, because the degree remains ill-defined. "If you are a good mechanical engineer you know what you need to know" to work in the sporting goods industry.

To be sure, the various British institutions offering sports engineering degrees don't use a standard definition, except to say that its foundation is mechanical engineering. The University of Bath emphasizes design and manufacturing. So does Loughborough. But it also teaches elements of marketing, consumer trends, and product liability. Most schools' student projects are partially determined by faculty interests. But Loughborough also pays attention to economics—which sports consumers tend to most enrich—when deciding projects. In the U.K., the biggest sporting goods market is golf, followed by exercise equipment, the leader in the United States.

Bramley disputes the notion that sports engineering, as an emerging sub-discipline of mechanical engineering, can't eventually stand on its own merits, even if the designation initially confuses people. Mechanical engineering, he notes, originally hived off from civil engineering. At the turn of the century, no one knew what a materials engineer was, Bramley says, but after World War II it became a rapidly growing discipline with its own department at many schools.

Whatever the merits of the degree, or the need for it, so far it's not something that the sporting goods industry is clamoring for. That said, it is very much an industry in thrall to invention and always in need of skilled engineers.

In the United States, the sporting goods industry is valued at $50 billion, and it's heavily dependent upon new designs, materials, and products that enhance either performance or safety or both. "Companies like Adidas are constantly bringing out new innovations to grow their companies," Carre says. Adidas is a good example. In December it's launching a "smart" running shoe that contains a microprocessor that continuously adjusts its impact cushioning to match a runner's weight and gait. Then there's Head. Its latest tennis racquet is infused with piezoelectric fibers that reduce vibration and stiffen its frame. And, clearly, engineering breakthroughs have improved a wide range of sports equipment, from skis, exercise equipment, and bowling balls to tents, golf clubs, and baseball bats.

But does that mean there will be plenty of jobs for sports engineering degree holders or other recent engineering graduates who want to work in the industry? Pallis thinks so. "There certainly is a need for more engineers." Mike May of the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association agrees. "The demand for engineering is stronger now than ever before." And, Pallis says, they're needed not only to design new and improved gear, but to study how the equipment is used and make adjustments for gender and age. Pallis says that women tennis players are four times more likely to injure their ankles than men, and that suggests that they need different shoes. "The industry needs to learn that women are not small men and children are not smaller men and women." Moreover, Bramley says, the industry also needs engineers who can help it improve its manufacturing processes and bring in more automation.

But Loughborough's Jones isn't sure the industry can absorb a huge influx of sports engineers. "Demand is coming from the students," he says. "I'm not so certain there is a big demand from industry, at least nothing like the demand from the auto or aerospace industries. The situation is one where we have a lot of wannabes." But student demand, he quickly adds, is justification enough. "What we do is teach engineering through sports, and there is nothing wrong with that." If sports engineering graduates end up working in other industries, so be it, Jones says. "Universities have for decades," he points out wryly, "been turning out myriad history graduates, and not all of them become historians."

Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer based in Great Britain.

 

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