The Pressure’s On! Engineering Lab Explores “DeflateGate”

February 11, 2016 photo

            Following the Broncos victory in Super Bowl 50, WKU’s Professor Jason Wilson decided to bring the football enthusiasm into his classroom. For civil engineering students, this meant that they would have the opportunity to explore the NFL scandal “DeflateGate” from a scientific perspective.

Professor Wilson has described his Strength of Materials Lab as the “gateway to the rest of the engineering labs” here at Western Kentucky University. However, it is not the usual, mundane prerequisite. Mostly sophomores and juniors take the course, where they complete different and interesting experiments each week. Calculators and pencils abound, but the room can be quickly changed from a typical classroom into a laboratory, where theory is put to the test as applications to the real world are made. For example, students regularly complete an experiment to determine the best value for fishing line by testing the strength of different lines and looking at the price per yard. However, the “DeflateGate” lab was a new one for all this year.

“DeflateGate” was a controversy that occurred when the Patriots played the Colts in a 2015 AFC Championship game. The Patriots were accused of under-inflating their balls—at halftime, the balls were found to be below the regulation pressure range of 12.5-13.5 psi. The Colts were outraged, feeling that the low-pressure balls would be easier to catch and give the Patriots an advantage over them. After much uproar and media attention, reputable scientists eventually determined that the football controversy could simply be the result of a natural occurrence. Due to the fact that the game occurred on a rainy day with temperatures around 48 degrees, the balls could have lost pressure because of the Ideal Gas Law (which relates the variables of pressure, volume, and temperature for gases). Perhaps less exciting than the thought of a football scandal, this rationale seemed to very logically explain the situation. Last week, WKU students worked to test this hypothesis.PV=nRT


In order to recreate the circumstances of the AFC game, the footballs were filled with air at 9:32 Thursday morning, inspected at 10:47, and stored in water from 1:37 until the students performed the lab. By keeping them immersed in water, the footballs endured weather and temperature conditions similar to those at the 2015 game. While waiting until the proper time to remove the balls, students passed around two different footballs—one was at regulation pressure, and one at the low pressure of the Patriots ball. They held the footballs to see if they could feel the difference between the two balls. After two attempts, over half of the class still made incorrect guesses as to which was the lighter football. With such a small difference in pressure between the balls, very few students could even detect it at all.

Next, the chilled footballs were retrieved from the materials lab. To ensure accuracy, the class worked quickly—measuring the temperature and calculating the pressure of the foothermal cameratballs. Of course, there was enough spare time to point the thermal energy camera at one student, much to the amusement of the rest of the class as they saw the colors of a heat map spread across their friend’s face in the screen. Re-taking measurements regularly, the class observed how the footballs’ pressures changed over time.

Their conclusion? The Patriots were innocent! After comparing their football pressures to those of the game-day balls, the class concluded that the Patriots did nothing wrong. The Ideal Gas Law proved to be a reasonable explanation for the low pressure in the footballs. The students were also mostly unable to feel the difference between the low-pressure footballs and the regulation balls—this made them question whether deflating the footballs would even give the Patriots an advantage, anyway. After reviewing their data and discussing these findings with the group, the class came to an end.

From this lab specifically, students learned about the application of the Ideal Gas Law to football. However, other lessons were not missed. The class teaches students to think critically about questions before simply taking widely-accepted beliefs for the truth. They learn how to work with a group to solve problems and find answers. They learn about important academic concepts by footballapplying them to real-world events that are interesting and understandable. Through this, students learn the importance of understanding theory and applying that theory to the real world.




Works Cited:

Duffy, Jocelyn. Football. Digital image. Carnegie Mellon University News. Carnegie Mellon University, 28 January 2015. Web. 24 February 2016.

Lowe Steve. Thermal Camera. Digital Image. A Primer on Infra-Red Thermography. Thermalcities, 2008. Web. 24 February 2016.

Wilson, Jason. Personal Interview. 11 February 2016.

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