Science of the Summer Olympics: designing safety helmets

Olympic BoxingThe 2012 Summer Olympics provides an exciting backdrop for STEM opportunities. Help students apply both the concepts of science and engineering design with Science of the Summer Olympics videos and connected lesson plans created by the partnership of NBC Learn, NSF, and NSTA. This installment, Designing Safety Helmets, focuses on the intersection of safety, design, and performance. With the current emphasis on preventing head injuries in middle- and high-school athletes, this one is sure to spark lively discussion.

One of the things you’ll notice about the connected lesson plans, based loosely on the research of Brian Hand at the University of Iowa, is that the traditional investigative framework of scientific methods is replaced by a more student-driven approach fueled by your prompts. The idea of students making claims based on their own investigative evidence gives students more ownership of their results, which generally results in greater depth of understanding. Your state or district standards, however, may be focused on aspects of scientific methods, such as “Students will form a hypothesis or an if/then statement.” If so, help students recast their beginning question into a hypothesis. For example, a beginning question such as How do different materials react to the same amount of force? can be recast into a hypothesis such as “If the same amount of force is applied to three different kinds of foam, the densest foam will compress the least.” As students complete their investigation and begin to make claims based on their evidence, help them realize that similarly, their results can be used to state whether their hypothesis was supported or not supported.

Kristin Armstrong (USA)The series is available cost-free on and Use the link below to download the lesson plans in a format you can edit to customize for your situation. And if you had to make significant changes to a lesson, we’d love to see what you did differently, as well as why you made the changes. Leave a comment, and we’ll get in touch with you with submission information. We look forward to hearing from you!

–Judy Elgin Jensen

Boxing image courtesy of Ian Glover.

Biking image courtesy of Sum of Marc.

In “Designing Safety Helmets,” Dr. Nikhil Gupta, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, explains the challenges associated with designing safety helmets used by different types of athletes. In his lab, he and other members of his team use specialized equipment, including cameras and microscopes, to test and analyze how the various materials used in helmets withstand impact. Dr. Gupta also discusses the importance of the comfort and fit of a helmet, as well as how this critical piece of safety equipment actually holds up under real world conditions.

Lesson plans
Two versions of the lesson plans help students build background and develop questions they can explore regarding safety helmet design and construction, materials used in the helmets, or how forces affect the materials. Both include strategies to support students in their own quest for answers and strategies for a more focused approach that helps all students participate in hands-on inquiry.

SOTSO: Designing Safety Helmets models how students might investigate factors associated with impact forces on safety helmets.

SOTSO: Designing Safety Helmets, An Engineering Perspective models how students might apply what they learn in the video or other sources to recommend when a boxer or other athlete should replace safety headgear.

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