This feature originally appeared in the Summer edition of the Cal Sports Quarterly. The Cal Athletics flagship magazine features long-form sports journalism at its finest and provides in-depth coverage of the scholar-athlete experience in Berkeley. Printed copies are mailed four times a year to Bear Backers who give annually at the Bear Club level (currently $600 or more). For more information on how you can receive a printed version of the Cal Sports Quarterly at home, send an email to CalAthleticsFund@berkeley.edu or call (510) 642-2427.
Early in the spring of 2018, Evan Rambo, a legal studies major and a safety for the Cal football team, got wind of a new course that promised a unique experience for students on the Cal campus. The more he learned about the subject, the more intrigued he became.
So when an academic advisor emailed the entire football team about the class, Rambo knew he had to act quickly if he wanted to secure a coveted spot on the roster.
"Let me make sure I get my interview in first and try to be one of the first applicants to actually get into the class," Rambo thought. "It was something I really wanted to be a part of from the beginning."
The course was titled a Sports Tech Collider Sprint and held at the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology. Tucked inside the northwest corner of California Memorial Stadium and part of the College of Engineering, SCET describes itself as promoting the study and practice of entrepreneurship and technology innovation.
In essence, the Sports Tech Collider Sprint brought together students from science, engineering, math and other similar majors with student-athletes of varying interests. Students were divided into teams of 3-5, each tasked with developing an idea that combined technology and innovation with a goal to create competitive advantages for athletes and sports teams.
"It was really interesting because you never know how a new class like this is going to come about," said Stephen Torres, a faculty member in engineering who came up with the idea. "We're for the first time taking some of our best, brightest science, technology, engineering, math students on campus and putting them in a classroom with some of our best student-athletes. That was kind of the hypothesis. And then giving them real challenges to see what they could come up with. That was exciting as just a professor and a teacher and an educator."
Torres still lights up every time he discusses the Collider Sprint. His hope from the beginning was that enough students shared that enthusiasm.
"Just because I like sports, I like engineering things, and I'm an entrepreneur – that's one thing," Torres said. "But finding out if there's enough of those types of folks on campus was a huge concern. Would engineers and science people and different majors even want to take a sports tech-focused class? Then there was also the trepidation of would student-athletes be interested in the entrepreneurial aspects of business? Could we find enough students who would want to take this class who could do the academic rigor of the class, as well as produce?"
The results were, to use Torres' word, amazing. Expecting maybe 15-20 students, more than 60 expressed interest and about 30 were eventually accepted following an application process that featured both written responses to specific questions and an in-person interview. Under Armour even signed on as a sponsor.
"That really showed us that there was interest there and that it was something that everyone on campus could get behind," Torres said. "It's not just athletics. It's not just academics. It's really us working in sync."
Danielle Vivo, the SCET program manager, said the course attracted a wide range of students from different corners of campus given the uniqueness of the topic. Among student-athletes, seven others took part in addition to Rambo – Carmen Annevelink (volleyball), Garrett Corcoran (men's track & field), Danny Jordan (men's rowing), Chase Forrest (football), Cassidy Keelen (women's gymnastics), Archer Olson (women's basketball) and Alonso Vera (football).
"You really brought two passions together," Vivo said. "There were students that were passionate about sports, and there were students that were really passionate about entrepreneurship and wanted do the same thing in the sports field. We could really see that they wanted to take the time to do something that would matter in that space."
"I found out about the class when my advisor sent out an email for it," Keelen said. "It didn't detail a lot about it, but as soon as it said 'sports and tech,' I knew I wanted to take it. There wasn't much thought involved because I knew immediately it was something I wanted to do."
As time approached for the start of two-unit, eight-week course, Rambo's anticipation continued to grow.
"It was really exciting because I had no idea really of how the class was going to go or really what the possibilities were around it," Rambo said. "I was intrigued by the energy and atmosphere, just bringing together ideas and what can happen from it."
Having recently undergone knee surgery, Rambo had an interest in finding ways to either help with injury prevention or see how players move about the field. His team, called Basys, also included Tushar Mittal, a chemical biology and material engineering major, and Sahil Hasan, an electrical engineering and computer science major.
Basys placed its focus on using wearable technology in gloves and shoes fitted with microchips to aid with technique analysis. Players and coaches could then evaluate such aspects as balance, approach angles and force from watching practice film. How much force can a player generate on a blocking sled given his stance and hand positioning? Or how well can a defensive back come out of a break based on how his feet are positioned?
To get more insight into how this idea could be best utilized, Rambo took advantage of a special connection that could provide crucial guidance – head football coach Justin Wilcox
, who was more than willing to listen and lend his advice.
"Evan told me what they were thinking and I spent some time with them," Wilcox said. "A couple of our coaches were involved, too. What were the measurables we would want to use? What's something that's practical and what's something that maybe sounds good but isn't practical? We ended up with coming up with the ability to measure force."
At the end of eight weeks, each of the teams within the Sports Tech Collider made five-minute presentations on their projects and ideas to a room full of classmates, advisors from some of Silicon Valley's biggest firms and even a few venture capitalists. A team of judges ranked the top three ideas and Basys took first place, giving the group the opportunity to compete for the Collider Cup against winners from all 12 SCET classes. Once again, Basys finished first, and now teammates Rambo, Mittal and Hasan plan to keep Basys together to continue developing their model with the hope of making it a fully marketable product someday.
"In this class, you really have to get outside of your comfort zone,"
Rambo said. "Just the idea of this class can be intimidating for athletes and even for engineers or computer science majors. It's a learning environment. It's a place for ideas to come together. It doesn't really matter what your major is. It matters how much you're willing to put into this process. All that matters is, are you willing to work with other people. Are you comfortable with other people?"
Clearly, the answer is yes for Rambo. And with a full semester version of the Sports Tech Collider being offered this fall, expect another good cross section of students to agree, as well.