First Person

Better helmets, stricter laws needed to protect student athletes

Dr. Igor Szczyrba’s world is one of abstract mathematical formulae and complex software, not high school locker rooms and football sidelines. Yet from his research may come one key to keeping young athletes safe.

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Riddell is embedding sensors in some football helmets so researchers can study what types of hits are most likely to produce concussions.

Szczyrba (pronounced “Surba”) is a professor of mathematical sciences at the University of Northern Colorado, and for the past 10 years his research has focused on computer modeling of traumatic brain injuries.

Last week, at a supercomputing conference in New Orleans, Intel, working with football helmet manufacturer Riddell, announced that Szczyrba is among a group of researchers whose modeling will be used to predict what sort of on-field hits are most likely to produce dangerous head injuries, and to suggest in which part of the brain such injuries might occur.

“We want to develop some brain injury criteria,” said Szczyrba, who is collaborating with his son, software engineer Rafal Szczyrba, and Martin Burtscher, an associate professor at Texas State University in San Marcos who received his doctorate in computer science from the University of Colorado in 2000.

A better way to predict and detect concussions

“I’m not a physician, but my understanding is that right now, at high school and university football games, if a player takes a blow to the head, the coach asks him some questions based on a questionnaire. And based on their answers they decide if there’s a chance there’s a concussion.  But we want to do more,” Szczyrba said.

“If it’s a minor concussion, they might not even know it. The problem with minor brain injuries is that they may not be immediately apparent. A brain hematoma may start very slowly, and even if you do an MRI, it might not show up immediately. You cannot judge immediately whether there’s been a concussion based on the behavior of a football player. That’s why it’s important to help physicians predict the probability of an injury.”

Dr. Igor Szczyrba, a math professor at UNC, has spent the past 10 years developing computer models of traumatic brain injury.

The modeling to be done by Szczyrba and his colleagues will involve data collected from sensors placed inside football helmets. These sensors will measure the acceleration or movement of a player’s head inside the helmet during a hit.

Research indicates that the most dangerous brain injuries appear when the head rotates on the neck. By analyzing the angle and force of each hit, and comparing those hits that cause concussions to those that do not, researchers may be able not only to design helmets that provide better protection, but also imbed chips in those helmets that can alert coaches and physicians when a player has taken a potentially dangerous hit.

“In the past we’ve tried to do similar studies on car accidents,” Szczyrba said. “You can estimate the acceleration of the car, the acceleration of the body, especially the head, but it’s very imprecise because you cannot tell how a body is moving in the car. This is the first time we’re getting the data from football helmets, and data from cars is not as good as data from helmets.”

Szczyrba has just received the first set of data. He hopes that within a year, he and his colleagues will have be able to produce some definitive findings.

Legislation likely to be introduced in Colorado next year

Meanwhile, expect concussions and how they are treated in school-age athletes to become an increasingly hot topic in Colorado. At least one major conference on the topic is planned for Denver in February, and officials from a number of agencies that deal with brain injuries are working to draft legislation they hope will be introduced in the upcoming Colorado General Assembly.

“Already there are half a dozen states where such legislation has passed or is pending, so it’s not just Colorado,” said Gavin Attwood, executive director of the Brain Injury Association of Colorado. “Part of that wave is because there has been increased research around the effects of concussion on young brains. The brains of high school athletes heal a lot slower than adults. I can’t give you a reason why, but they do.”

“The other thing that’s being observed is that if you have several concussions, there can be longterm cognitive issues for the students,” Attwood said. “It could be a lack of concentration, or irritability or depression. So what the country has to say is, ‘Hey, we love that our youth play sports and in no way are we trying to put a stop to that, but we’ve got to manage concussions carefully. Otherwise, these kids will potentially have cognitive issues later in life.”

The exact number of sports-related concussions suffered by Colorado students annually isn’t known, but based on extrapolation from national data, officials estimate somewhere between 1,349 and 2,510 such concussions each year result in emergency room visits. But the actual number is likely far greater, since many more injured youngsters never make it to the emergency room, and often never receive any sort of treatment at all.

Attwood said the proposed legislation in Colorado will mostly likely address three issues: mandatory education about concussions for all coaches, even volunteer coaches; mandatory removal from the field of play for young athletes suspected of sustaining a concussion; and prohibition from returning to play without the approval of a medical professional with training in treating concussions.

Conference planned for February

The Brain Injury Association will host a conference, “When Mild Traumatic Brain Injury is Not Really Mild,” on Feb. 4 in Denver. Keynote speaker will be Dr. Ron Savage, chairman and co-founder of the International Pediatric Brain Injury Society and “the guru of all things about disability in the school system,” said Rhonda Rickett, coordinator of the event.

“He built the model for brining parents and schools together as very direct partners in educating students with disabilities,” she said.

The REAP Project (Reduce, Educate, Accommodate, Pace) is a community-based model for concussion management developed in Colorado.

Also speaking will be Dr. Karen McAvoy, a licensed child psychologist and director of the Center for Concussion at the Rocky Mountain Youth Sports Medicine Institute. From 2004 to 2007, McAvoy was manager of a Centers for Disease Control study on concussion in high school athletes. The researchers followed 92 student athletes with concussions over three years.

Based on that study, McAvoy developed the REAP Project (Reduce, Educate, Accommoate, Pace), a model program for concussion management that health officials hope will be adopted throughout Colorado. During its pilot 2009-10 school year, when it was in place in four Colorado school districts, the REAP project received more than 150 referrals of athletes treated in emergency rooms for concussion. The families of those injured athletes were quickly contacted by REAP so that parents could know what to look for and how to gradually ease the youngsters back into activity without further harm or risk.

For more information

To read more about Szczyrba’s Traumatic Brain Injury research and to see animated computer models, go here and select “animations.”

To see a simulation of a collision between football players and how their heads rotate, see this article in geek.com.

Read the latest recommendations for enhancing athlete safety, released in September by the Colorado Youth Sports Concussions Special Interest Group.

Read this post on the safety of youth football by EdNews Parent expert Chris Strater.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.