For university students with both STEM smarts and a taste for action sports, a new academic discipline is gaining traction: extreme sports engineering.
Advances in technology have made action sports safer and more accessible, expanding demand for the specialized equipment and clothing they call for. That, in turn, has prompted some universities in the U.S. and abroad to offer engineering programs designed to help students develop the skills to design and produce better extreme gear.
This academic year the University of Wales Trinity St. David in Swansea is offering, for the first time, undergraduate and graduate degrees in Extreme Sports Engineering. “This is a relatively new industry that has seen significant growth,” says Kelvin Lake, a senior lecturer in mechanical engineering at UWTSD, an avid kitesurfer and snowboarder, and program director for extreme sports engineering.
When designing the program, Lake sought the advice of UK-based manufacturers of equipment for sports including surfing, mountain biking, kitesurfing, snowboarding and skateboarding. “Some of the content is exactly what traditional engineering industries need,” he says. “Other things are more unique to extreme sports. For example, a longboard manufacturer emphasized the need to look at wood, a material that many traditional engineering courses may not cover.”
Lake believes that, in addition to appealing to extreme sports devotees who already know they want to be engineers, the program will attract students to engineering who otherwise would not have considered it. “We’re opening up engineering to a whole new audience,” he says.
Sports engineering degrees can be earned at several other UK universities, including Loughborough University, which has a well-established and highly regarded program in Sports Science and Engineering. A few Australian universities award similar degrees.
Currently, no U.S. universities offer a bachelor’s degree in this emerging discipline. One reason: In the States, accreditation is crucial for undergraduate degrees and ABET, the organization that blesses engineering programs, doesn’t yet offer its stamp of approval for sports engineering.
Bringing together sports, professors and industry partners
However, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology undergraduate students can gain experience working on sports projects with professors and industry partners through a program called STE@M (Sports Technology and Education at MIT).
Anette “Peko” Hosoi, Ph.D., an MIT professor and devoted mountain biker, started STE@M two years ago to harness the energy and experience of extreme sports enthusiasts like herself. “If you’re really going to innovate in an area, it helps to be immersed in that field. For someone who has never ridden a mountain bike to try to make a better mountain bike would be a disaster.”
In addition, she says: “People get really passionate about sports, particularly extreme sports. If you can combine all that energy with a technical education and channel it into product development – that would be a huge opportunity you don’t want to miss.”
Extreme sports are exciting for students not only because they tap into personal passions, but also because they’re still relatively new and designs aren’t optimized yet. “For example,” says Hosoi, “road bikes basically all look the same. But downhill bikes are all different – the places you put the shocks are different; the brakes are different. That means there are lots of opportunities for engineers to improve designs and materials.”
The same is true of kitesurfing. “People are experimenting with different boards and kites,” says Hosoi, “but there aren’t a lot of people who have done the aerodynamic and hydrodynamic analysis to optimize the board and kite combination. Engineering can be applied to improve those systems.”
Postgraduate students in the U.S. can earn a master’s degree in sports engineering at the University of Colorado in Denver, which has been offering that option for five years now. “The students all come in with a background in sport and most are highly motivated to solve an equipment issue they’ve had,” says program director Peter Jenkins, Ph.D., P.E. “That makes it very interesting for me and for the students.” Projects have included redesigns of snowboard bindings, mouth guards, and bike-racing helmets to improve function or aerodynamics.
Jenkins is content to offer a master’s program. “I believe undergraduate students should have a strong background in engineering, not a specialized degree. Right now I see students with petroleum-engineering degrees who can’t get jobs. I want my students to have that fundamental degree so if they can’t get a job in sports engineering, they can get a job with Lockheed Martin because they have the skills and the tools to work there.”
Others see value in providing choices that engineering students are passionate about. “I think the number of opportunities for engineers generally is increasing,” says Hosoi. “When you’re an undergraduate, you’re learning about how to be a good engineer. Whether you do that in the context of aerospace or sports, you’re still going to be a good engineer when you come out and there will be lots of job opportunities.”
Extreme sports engineering growth
There are signs that the number of opportunities for extreme sports engineers will grow. “In the last 10-15 years, sporting goods have become more technical so there’s more need for engineers,” says Kim Blair, Ph.D., vice president of operations at Cooper Perkins, a technology development and product design consulting firm. “There’s more and more technology in products all the time,” says Blair, also a past president of the International Sports Engineering Association, former director of Sports Innovation at MIT, and a current advisor to STE@M.
“For sports companies to have advantage,” he continues, “they need to bring some expertise in house to do their own testing and development and not rely on suppliers. Having the in-house capability to design and develop products allows you to build a differentiator into your product and gives you a competitive advantage.”
Headquartered in northern California, Santa Cruz Bicycles designs high-performance mountain bikes. The company’s team of in-house engineers is dedicated to frame-related projects, including suspension kinematics, frame geometry, frame layout, lay-up design and testing.
Director of Engineering Nick Anderson says the company needs its own engineers to maintain competitive advantage in an industry where trends are continuously changing. He explains: “As equipment improves, trails get built differently and then bikes need to evolve to be better on the newer trails. Suspension gets better so jumps get bigger. Brakes get better so trails get steeper. Both require different things from the frame geometry.”
Keeping ahead of the curve requires engineering talent, a challenge in and of itself. “Hiring good engineers is really difficult,” says Anderson. “The last guy we hired wasn’t looking. We brought him in for an interview and had to convince him to leave his job to work for us.”
Historically, products in many extreme sports have been developed using an iterative approach, with expert users providing feedback that leads to modifications for the next version. Lake says that his program aims to teach students how to engineer these products. “If we can understand what characteristics a particular product needs (for example torsional stiffness or natural frequency), then we can engineer these characteristics into the products,” he says. “That’s not to say that testing will not be necessary. We’re just trying to reduce the sole reliance on testing, reduce development times, and apply lessons learnt from other industries, such as the automotive industry.”
Hosoi also believes that the extreme sports industry holds opportunity for engineers, and that engineers who participate in action sports can add great value to the product development process. “These people spend their weekends tinkering in their garage trying to improve the performance of their equipment,” she says. “The sport is part of their identity. It’s not, ‘I ride a bike.’ It’s, ‘I am a mountain biker.’ This is core to their identity. To tie that in with education is a huge opportunity.”
Mountain biking photos by Sven Martin and courtesy of Santa Cruz Bicycles.
Engineering photo courtesy of Kelvin Lake at UWTSD.