What can baseball teach us?

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New England Baseball Journal

December 13, 2012

By Nick A. Zaino III

...Over at Dartmouth, baseball helps students relate to a more tangible subject at the Thayer School of Engineering, where professor Rachel Obbard teaches a course called “Materials in Sport Equipment.” Though it is not exclusively about baseball, students do learn about the manufacturing of things 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,” Obbard 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 (batter’s helmets, gloves, catcher’s equipment), and finally we cover composite materials, which brings us back to bats (a bit). 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.”

Peterson and Obbard both describe themselves as fans of the sport. And just as the sports influences the academics, the academics can influence how they see 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.”

Rawlings Baseball Helmet
Students in ENGS 8: Materials in Sports Equipment analyzed the Rawlings Baseball Helmet.

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