Grades 6-12

Teacher Resources

It’s All in Your Head is an activity developed by Learning Undefeated to explore the physics of concussions and how materials science can be used to make better helmets to hopefully prevent long-term injury.

Concussions are a type of traumatic brain injury. The brain tissue is damaged when the brain hits the inside of the skull with a high force, essentially bruising the brain.

If an individual suffers a large number of concussions during their lifetime, long term effects including neurodegenerationthe progressive loss of structure or function of neurons, may occur. As research continues into concussions and the long-term effects of injuries, there may be a way to prevent neurodegeneration in at risk individuals.

In this inquiry based activity, your students will discover the mechanics of concussions, test and evaluate different helmet materials, and walk away with a better understanding of how future technologies can make athletic play safer.

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to

  • Students use a model to determine how concussions cause damage to the brain
  • Complete the engineering design process in designing a football helmet.
  • Calculate averages from trial data collected
  • Analyze collision data (including average force and time of impact) to determine the most protective material.
  • Describe how padding materials reduce concussion events using the impulse-momentum theorem
Standards Alignments + Connections

Next Generation Science Standards Connections

MS-PS2-1: Apply Newton’s Third Law to design a solution to a problem involving the motion of two colliding objects.

HS-PS2-3: Apply science and engineering ideas to design, evaluate, and refine a device that minimizes the force on a macroscopic object during a collision.

HS-ETS1-3: Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.

Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for Science Connections

8.6C: investigate and describe applications of Newton’s three laws of motion such as in vehicle restraints, sports activities, amusement park rides, Earth’s tectonic activities, and rocket launches

IPC.4D: describe and calculate the relationship between force, mass, and acceleration using equipment such as dynamic carts, moving toys, vehicles, and falling objects

PHY.4D: Calculate the effect of forces on objects, including the law of inertia, the relationship between force and acceleration, and the nature of force pairs between objects using methods, including free-body force diagrams.

PHY.6C: Calculate the mechanical energy of, power generated within, impulse applied to, and momentum of a physical system;

PHY.6D: Demonstrate and apply the laws of conservation of energy and conservation of momentum in one dimension

Virginia Science Standards of Learning Connections

PH.3A: Newton’s laws of motion

PH.4A: momentum is conserved unless an impulse acts on the system

Activities to Gather Evidence

Background Information

Explore the basics of concussions—what can cause a concussion, what are the symptoms, and what effect does it have on the brain and its functionality.  Discover technology that can be used to help monitor high level head impacts and how they can be used to keep concussion patients safe when they return to the field.

Internet of Things 

The internet of things (IoT) is a network of internet-enabled devices that can interact with web services and/or each other. Examples of devices in the internet of things include smart watches, fitness trackers, or even an engine sending data to a computer. This growing virtual network includes more and more objects every day and is becoming a part of our daily lives. As these devices become more commonplace, understanding how they communicate is vital to making them more efficient.

IoT devices can include devices such as a smartwatch or fitness tracker, but excludes every day objects that are expected to have an internet function (such as a cell phone or PC).

Video: The Internet of Things

IoT and Health 

Many of these devices help chronic disease patients to monitor different aspects of their health and warn their doctors of adverse effects.  Sensors to track physical activity, glucose levels, and even pacemakers allows clinicians to understand what happens to a patient when they are not in the clinic.

Concussion sensors, and other wearable devices, communicate health information to devices like laptops and tablets that can be used by an athlete’s coach, trainer, or parent.  Collisions or high force events trigger the sensor to send impact information, like magnitude and location of hit, to the associated device.  Many platforms also utilize symptom reporting to track any effects that an athlete experiences after a concussion event.

Concussions in Athletics

Identifying Concussions on the Sideline

Trainers use a series of tests to identify when an individual has suffered a concussion. To start, the trainer or ER doctor will conduct an interview to discuss symptoms the athlete is experiencing in addition to see if there are any memory problems present.  Symptoms that are most common include headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, and trouble sleeping.  After an interview, a concussion exam is performed.  This exam checks the patient’s hearing, vision, reflexes, balance and coordination.  A cognitive test is also used to check the patient’s memory and attention span.

Concussion Assessment Tools

Developed by the Concussion in Sport Group and supported by athletic organizations like the International Olympic Committee, Sports Concussion Assessment Tool (SCAT) can be used by medical professionals to conduct a standardized evaluation for a presumed concussion.  This tool walks through symptom evaluation, a cognitive screening for memory and concentration, and a neurological screen.  When paired with a pre-assessment performed during preseason, results can be interpreted more easily, but it is not required.

ImPACT (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing) works similarly to test visual and verbal memory, brain processing speed, and reaction time.  This FDA approved assessment is used by organizations including MLS, Forumula 1 Racing, NASCAR, and US Lacrosse.  The software relies on baseline testing to compare after a concussion event and can be conducted on a computer or a mobile device.

Wearable Concussion Sensors

Wearable concussion sensors are worn during athletic play and communicate potential injuries to trainers or parents on the sideline-alerting them to potential injuries. It’s important to note, that wearable concussion sensors cannot detect concussion events directly. Sensors are able to alert trainers to the potential of events, by measuring the force of impacts to the head an athlete suffers. With the aid of concussion sensors, a diagnosis can be faster and more efficiently providing major benefits to an athlete’s long-term health.

Using wearable sensors to detect concussions is not a new idea, however, the search for the ultimate design continues. Several sensor designs and “smart helmets” have come on the market briefly, before being proven ineffective. Different designs have varying limitations, which has contributed to the lack of widespread usage.

Pre-Laboratory Engagement

Pre-Lab questions

  • In what types of situations are concussions common?
  • Have you ever experienced a concussion?  What did it feel like at the moment and afterward?
  • What can we do to reduce damage caused by concussions?

Laboratory Activity

Concussions, a type of Traumatic Brain Injury, may be caused by a blow to the head or a violent shaking of the head and body. Concussions are a hot topic in sports that involve regular head impacts, such as football and soccer. Victims may also suffer concussions from car accidents, epileptic seizures, and extreme sports such as skateboarding and cycling. If an individual suffers a large number of concussions during their lifetime, long term effects including neurodegeneration, the progressive loss of structure or function of neurons, may occur. As research continues into the mechanism behind concussions and the long-term effects, there may be a way to prevent neurodegeneration in at risk individuals.

One of the main ways to prevent long term injury is to prevent as many high impacts as possible.  Taking ideas from military helmets engineers around the world have been designing helmets to decrease the force of an impact to decrease the chances of a concussion during sporting events.  The National Football League was one of the first organizations to make helmets a mandatory piece of equipment in their games in 1943. Since then other sports organizations, like the NHL and MLB, have also required helmets for their games.  Even some state legislatures have written laws requiring people to wear helmets when riding bicycles or horses.

Each helmet must be designed for the activity required during the sport and the forces that the athlete will be experiencing.  Helmets must be designed to allow the athlete to be protected, but also still see and perform well.  Many companies like Riddell, Under Armor, and VICIS design and test new helmets with new materials to see what can best protect an athlete while allowing for maximal performance.


As a materials engineer for Riddell, it is your job to help design a helmet that will decrease the chances of a concussion.  To do so, you will utilize slow-motion cameras with a model brain to visualize what happens to the brain during an impact to cause a concussion.  You will then test a series of different materials for their ability to decrease impact force.

Post-Laboratory Extension

Based on the paper:

Apolipoprotein E Associated with Chronic Traumatic Brain Injury in Boxing

New research suggests that there may be a link between genetic disposition and recovery time from a significant concussion event.

This post-laboratory extension is intended to provide an open, flexible framework that is not necessarily a continuation of our It’s All in your Head activity but can be tailored to introduce biological concepts and illustrate the connection between disciplines.

Additional Resources

Athlete Intelligence  Learn about the software and CUE and Vector sensors used in the activity.

ROSH Impact Sensing Headgear  Learn about how a headband to measure impacts.

Prevent Biometrics  Learn about the technology behind the Prevent Biometrics head impact monitor system