Beth Cady Program Officer National Academy of Engineering

Engineering and Sports

PostedThursday, July 20, 2017 at 1:54 PM

July is a great time to be a sports fan. The world’s best tennis players just competed in the 131st Wimbledon championships on the grass at the All England Club. Golfers just finished the 72nd women’s US Open in New Jersey and will play the 146th men’s Open Championship at the Royal Birkdale Golf Club in England this weekend. Bicyclists have been riding the Tour de France for almost 3 weeks and will finish this Sunday on the Champs-Élysées in Paris. In a historical note, July 20th is the birthday of mountain climber Sir Edmund Hillary, the New Zealander who, along with Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, first stood atop Mount Everest.

All of these sports have changed drastically since the early days, with engineering driving many of the transformations. When Wimbledon began in 1877 (it was not played during either of the World Wars), players wielded wooden racquets and all play took place on 12 courts with few stands and no protection from the London rain.  In the 140 years since Spencer Gore topped a field of 22 to win the first gentlemen’s singles championship, racquets have changed dramatically and students can use engineering to design their own racquet that might be used to win Wimbledon in the future! More recently, the All England Club installed a retractable roof over Centre Court, an engineering feat that students can consider as they design and build a sports stadium.  Over the last century, changes to both golf clubs and golf balls have resulted in increased length of tee shots on both the women’s and the men’s tours (although while both women and men benefited from club changes, men benefited from changes to the ball more than women did).  In addition, the sport can provide context to math or science lessons for younger students or for engineering-related lessons for older students. And what could be more fun for a group of students than designing, building, and using their own mini-golf course?

Want to bring the Tour into the classroom? Students can learn about gears and how the cyclists need to take advantage of different gears in order to climb the Alps or succeed in a time trial on flatter ground. Although some students might not be as familiar with racing bikes, all students can relate to bike helmets and the need to use engineering to improve the safety features of sporting equipment. Safety equipment and other gear used for mountain climbing have also changed since Hillary and Norgay summited Everest in 1953. Students can learn about the best fabrics to wear in harsh and frigid conditions as well as how the decrease in air pressure at high altitude can affect both humans and their equipment and therefore must be taken into account when designing climbing equipment.

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