Is AstroTurf making athletes sick?

Jim Speer’s Introduction to Environmental Science class participated a national discussion about the possible links between crumb tire in artificial turf and high cancer rates in soccer goalies.

Students at Indiana State University are getting firsthand experience with national collaborative research efforts through integration of social media outreach.


Jim Speer

Professor Jim Speer’s Introduction to Environmental Science class at State worked alongside six other universities while participating in the “Do Now Project” created by Northern California public radio station KQED. This college initiative was designed to use social media to start a new type of conversation among college students.

“Do Now” gives the students the opportunity to find current issues that spark their interest and for them to be the expert. The idea is presenting to and educating their class, including the professor, gives the students more ownership and appreciation of the topic.

Students Hunter McCord and Andrew Medsker worked on the effects of artificial turf. Medsker, a sophomore math education student from Shelbyville, Ind., came up with the discussion topic based on his experience playing football on an AstroTurf field.

University of Washington women’s soccer Coach Amy Griffin was interviewed for a special broadcast on NBC News last fall discussing this topic. Griffin now knows of 63 goalkeepers who have been diagnosed with cancer. All with them have the same tie — they played soccer on crumb-rubber artificial turf. Washington State Department of Health has begun its own research regarding the effects of this artificial turf.

At Indiana State’s Memorial Stadium, athletes play on crumb rubber turf. Former Indiana State women’s soccer player Bergen Elkjer says she is not a supporter of AstroTurf fields for a different reason — because they can mean more injuries than a grass field. The center back defender from Purcellville, Va., explained how easy it is for the cleats to become stuck in the turf while running.

“Personally, since I have started playing on AstroTurf, I have had torn my ACL twice, and I can see how rough it can be on my knees and calves. Unlike real grass, AstroTurf is not supportive for your body,” Elkjer said.

For the project, the students developed a question that could be debated, found a video online to introduce the topic, wrote a one-page document showing the issues for and against the topic and then supported their findings with three other Web sources.

McCord and Medsker collaborated to provide the information about the benefits and the limitations of AstroTurf. The discussion topic was then posted online at KQED’s website, and the conversation flourished.

Students across America took to Twitter using #DoNowUTurf and posted their questions and comments on the discussion board. More than 50 tweets, multiple blog posts and more than 190 comments were posted on the KQED website in response to this topic.

“I really enjoyed seeing the response from the other students, either by tweeting out using our hashtag or responding to our article online. It was cool that we started a discussion with students across America,” said McCord, a freshman criminology major from Bartlett, Ill.

This “Do Now” project was a discovery of a whole new realm of teaching for Speer. Embarking on teaching at Indiana State right after receiving his Ph.D. 15 years ago, Speer has seen technology evolve. He used to photocopy pages from books onto transparency slides for an overhead projector. From there, he progressed to using PowerPoint, but is now working to incorporate social media into his lesson plans. This was the first semester Speer used Twitter in the classroom.

Integrating social media throughout lectures can help start a conversation about something students do not understand. In this manner, Twitter was used to further reach outside of the Indiana State community. This national platform helped students be more engaged and motivated throughout the project.

Speer learned about “Do Now” at the summer institute for the Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities, a National Science Foundation-funded education program that has been around for about 10 years, he said. Indiana State switched some of its science classes to this teaching model in 2009.

The purpose of SENCER is to get students more involved with hands-on research, as opposed to a general lab class. “Do Now” works to get students more involved with topics they learn through civic issues.

“Students are only going to learn what they are ready for and what they are interested in. If we can scaffold what we are trying to teach into things that they are interesting in, they are more likely to gain an interest in that material,” Speer said.

This project has also put Indiana State on the map with a few other big college names. George Mason University’s discussion topic covered the Sage Grouse, a bird under consideration for being endangered; Duke University discussed the vaccination for polio.

“I found this a very useful project, because I could connect more with the students and the students can also have some time exploring their own interests,” Speer said. He plans to continue to participate in KQED’s project again next fall, he added.

Through the collaborative environment created by social media, universities are now able to leverage students’ aptitude to discuss civic issues in an educational environment. The challenge of engaging students can now be accomplished by meeting them on the platform of their choice.

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