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New course on concussion examines how social, ethical, and legal issues influence research and medicine

December 14, 2017

Youth football players line up before a scrimmage. Sensors in their helmets will record any head impacts.

youth football players
The helmets worn by these youth football players are lined with sensors to record head impacts they experience on the field. The biomedical engineering and mechanics professors leading this research have designed a new undergraduate course which uses concussion research as a lens to explore the intersection of science, engineering, and society.

Biomedical engineers and ESPN reporters don’t often appear as lecturers on the same syllabus.

But they will this spring, along with a lawyer, a sports therapist, and other experts, in a new course called “Concussion: Medical, Scientific, and Societal Perspectives.”

Stefan Duma is the Harry Wyatt Professor of Engineering. He has worked with colleagues across campus to develop the course, which meets the requirements for both the Pathways for General Education and Curriculum for Liberal Education.

Duma is an expert on head-injury biomechanics and the founder of the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab, which is best-known for the five-star rating system that has propelled the evolution of safer design for football and other helmets.

His research team has collected reams of data on what types of head impacts cause concussion and what types of protective equipment can help prevent them — and in the process, has become familiar with the thorny ethical, social, and legal issues that surround these injuries.

Duma hopes to convey some of that complexity in the new course. Using concussion research as a lens, the class will give students a glimpse into the way science influences, and is influenced by, the context in which it’s conducted — and, in particular, the role of media in interpreting science for the public.

Concussions are relatively common and notoriously under-reported; hundreds of thousands are diagnosed in U.S. emergency rooms every year, and the real incidence is probably much higher, Duma said.

“We’re used to hearing about the concussion issue in professional sports, but at the local level, any kid who makes it through high school has probably either dealt with a concussion themselves or has friends who have,” said Duma, who is also the interim director of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science.

And because it’s a topic that’s highly publicized and aggressively litigated, research unfolds in an environment roiled by animated media coverage and hotly contested legal battles.  

The new course, listed as BMES 2984, will explore that complicated landscape. The concussion course is open to students from any major and has no prerequisites. 

Registration is open now for the spring semester; the course is approved for CLE Area 4.

It will begin with a handful of introductory lectures that provide a primer on the biology and neuroscience of head injury, and then expand into current topics in concussion research and the legal, social, and ethical issues that contextualize and influence it.

The wide-ranging syllabus draws strength from exceptional facilities and expertise at Virginia Tech, which is an active and growing nexus of activity in brain research in the lab, in the clinic — and on the athletic field, where Duma’s research group has been recording head impacts experienced by the varsity football team since 2003.

“Virginia Tech is in a unique position to offer a course like this,” Duma said. “Concussion research is an interdisciplinary field, and we’re addressing so many facets of it right here.”

Over the course of the semester, students will visit labs in the College of Engineering, the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine, and the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, racking up hands-on experience with the methods used to diagnose concussion and evaluate protective equipment.

The comprehensive approach is reinforced by the team of instructors, who each tackle different aspects of the topic in their own work.

In addition to Duma, the group includes include Steven Rowson, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics and the director of the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab; Bethany Rowson, a research assistant professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics; Stephen LaConte, an associate professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute; Gunnar Brolinson, a sports therapist at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine, and Joel Stitzel, a professor of biomedical engineering at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, who is also on the faculty of the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences.

Guest lectures from journalists at the New York Times and ESPN, who played pivotal roles in exposing widespread head injury in professional football, will give students an inside look at the rigors of conscientious science reporting and the painstaking process of uncovering a health crisis that had been deliberately concealed.

“The media’s role in getting out information that’s accurate, and vetted, is more important now than it ever has been because there’s so much information available,” Duma said. “The way science is reported influences what the public believes is real, and that affects policy. In this case, for example, it affects how we play sports and how we treat people after they’re injured.”

The concussion course is one of three “gateway” courses for the Adaptive Brain and Behavior Destination Area, one of five destination areas envisioned as part of the Beyond Boundaries initiative championed by Virginia Tech President Tim Sands.

A second gateway course, Integrative Practices for Health Wellbeing and Resilience, is also being offered in the spring; a third, Neuroscience and Society, will be part of the Summer Academy.

“We believe that our gateway courses will be of broad general interest to a wide variety of students at Virginia Tech,” explained Anisa Zvonkovic, the destination area’s curriculum chair. “We designed them to spark interest in the brain and behavior connection for students with a range of interests. For the concussion course, that could be students who might be primarily attracted to sports and technology; for the integrative health course, it might be students who are interested in meditation and well-being, and the neuroscience and society course could attract students interested in neuroscience.”

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