Classroom: Materials in Sports Equipment
Baseball helps students relate to engineering in ENGS 8: “Materials in Sports Equipment,” in which students learn about the manufacturing of items such as mitts, helmets, baseballs, bats, and cleats.
“We start the course by learning about historical and current uses of wood in equipment, so of course the bat figures heavily in that,” Professor Rachel Obbard Th’06 says. “We move on to metals and alloys, and discuss aluminum bats as part of that. Then we cover polymers and polymer foams, which are used in footwear and protective equipment, such as batter’s helmets, gloves, and catcher’s equipment, and finally we cover composite materials, which brings us back to bats. I compare and contrast the materials, and baseball bats provide a good example of the use of two different classes of material: wood and aluminum. I cover failure mechanisms, for which we have some good examples in bats. And finally, I try to have students consider some of the ethical considerations around sports equipment, and corked bats are a great example.”
Offered to students who are not yet science or engineering majors, the course attracts future engineering students and athletes alike. Having the athletes in class, Obbard notes, is a big plus in terms of giving a real-world perspective to the syllabus.
“Students always relate better to technical material if they have a frame of reference for it,” she says. “So yes, the baseball players—and even the avid fans—understand the baseball-related material better at first than the other students and in return are able to contribute their own experiences to the class’ overall understanding.”
Obbard describes herself as a fan of baseball, one of the many sports she brings into class. And just as sports influences the academics, the academics can influence how a professor sees the sport. Obbard can’t help but watch the game on different levels.
“I like the way baseball brings people together,” she says. “Since teaching this course, I watch all sports differently from your average fan. I have always watched sports because the human achievement inspires me. Now, though, I find myself watching sports as an engineer and materials scientist as well—watching how people use equipment, the subtle variations in how they interact with it, and the occasions where it fails.”
—Nick A. Zaino III
(Editor’s Note: This article is adapted, with permission, from the New England Baseball Journal.)
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