Hard Hits Hellstern Middle School

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Twin brothers Carson and Janson Sanders, seventh graders in the Hellstern Middle School EAST program, have been doing a lot of homework recently in the school of hard knocks. They are using technology to develop a better understanding of — and hopefully limit the risk of damage from — injuries associated with one of their biggest passions.

That is, they’ve been studying how to measure and track concussions, research that began with their love of football.

“We were involved in another project that we had going, but because it just wasn’t what we loved, we decided why not do something with football and got going from that,” said Carson.

“Getting going” involved months of research into concussions, both causes and effects, particularly the often catastrophic effects of repeated concussions that lead to what’s called Second Impact Syndrome. All that, said Janson, really helped the project take shape.

“At first, I was thinking about how we could prevent concussions,” he said. “But my research told me you can’t prevent concussions. So, the question became what can we do to lessen the risk.

“We found that you can put sensors into helmets so you can be alerted to the first concussion. Hopefully then the second and deadly concussions won’t happen. You can also add different things to the helmet or to the turf so that you can absorb the shock and reduce the impact.”

The students then discovered that all of that technology requires money — money they didn’t have. Fortunately, the brothers found out about and then wrote a grant application to the EAST Initiative, the nonprofit organization that establishes and supports EAST classrooms through programs such as its Beyond the Bell grant, which offers funding for projects undertaken outside of normal school hours. They received a $5,000 award.

While the brothers wanted to have every student at their school equipped with sensors, the first step was discovering which sensor or sensors best fit their needs.

“Over last summer, we figured out what types of sensors we’d like to purchase,” said Carson. “This is such a new idea that people are just now beginning to understand it. There aren’t that many sensors out on the market.”

Due to backorders and some other equipment issues, they were unable to get a full order of sensor-equipped helmets prior to the beginning of the 2015 football season. That delay meant they were only able to get data from one game. Undeterred, their research has taken another turn.

“We’re making a 3D head model using alginate and ballistics gel so that we can put it into our helmet and gain data from the sensors,” Janson said. “Because the season is over, we can’t hit each other, so we’re going to make a testing device to get data from the sensors.”

In the meantime, they’ve been looking for partners to go over what they do have.

“Right now we’ve been interpreting the data ourselves, but we’ve been looking for different medical doctors and people who deal with brains and sports-related injuries with the brain to help us see what the data actually means,” Janson said.

The two boys, and indeed their entire EAST program, say they’ve already learned a lot, particularly about the risk of injury in football, which both brothers continue to love and play.

“That was just a huge eye opener to me, because I never knew that football could be so deadly or costly,” said Janson.

They’ve also found another love in sensor technology and say they may one day start a business with it. Regardless, they want to see it adopted in high school programs and hope to help make that happen. None of that, they note, would have been possible without the assistance they got.

“The Beyond the Bell grant was so helpful to us, and I think it would be helpful to any other project, because it helped us do things we wouldn’t have been able to do without that funding,” said Janson. “So I thank EAST for that.”

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