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
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