Industrial Engineer Engineering and Management Solutions at Work

October 2013    |    Volume: 45    |    Number: 10

The member magazine of the Institute of Industrial Engineers

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Major league learning

Major league learning

The Diamondbacks help professor take the Science of Baseball statewide

By Michael Hughes

When all else fails to get the kids interested in math and engineering, throw them a baseball. And maybe a bat and glove.

That’s the theory behind the Arizona Diamondbacks Science of Baseball, an initiative led by industrial engineering professor Ricardo Valerdi of the University of Arizona. The program has generated enough buzz in its initial year that it could expand to four other Major League Baseball teams. And a recent trip to Australia uncovered some potential sponsors to develop the Science of Cricket Down Under.Sergio Ortiz, a University of Arizona engineering student, discusses the correct technique for measuring your strike zone with two students. 

“It’s obviously a very generalizable concept for the science of sports in general, using sports as a mechanism to teach STEM and to make STEM more fun,” Valerdi said.

The program has trained 100 teachers statewide in the curriculum, and about 100 at-risk children will come through this year’s camps in Phoenix, which are held at the Diamondbacks’ spring training facility, Salt River Fields.

“The kids get to play in a major league field, and they love it,” Valerdi said. “They do batting practice and run the bases, and it’s really cool.”

The fifth- through eighth-graders spend the first part of each day in class before heading to the baseball fields. Instructors start by explaining that the students can become better athletes by becoming good at science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). This piques the children’s interest, and coaches explain that without good grades, budding athletes won’t get to play. That, according to Valerdi, “seals the deal” in terms of the material’s importance.

The classroom component teaches what each grade level needs to know about geometry, statistics and ratios to pass Arizona’s standardized tests. Students calculate statistics like a pitcher’s walk-to-strikeout ratio and explain how to use geometry to tally the area of the infield, the angle between the bases and the distance from home plate to the pitcher’s mound.

Take the angle of trajectory, for example. It is critical in baseball, golf, tennis, any sport where athletes hit something. In this abstract triangle, the base is the horizon or floor, with one side the vector at which the ball is moving. Students use a protractor to figure out the angle between the horizon and the trajectory of the baseball.

Stephen Connolly uses a whiffle ball as he tries his luck throwing a knuckleball to a student.“It ends up being a discussion about aerodynamics,” Valerdi said. “It’s a discussion about Newton’s law of forces – an object at rest stays at rest unless otherwise interfered with by an external force, or an object in motion remains in motion unless acted upon by an external force. That’s pretty advanced stuff for an eighth-grader. But they get it. They understand that’s the lens you have to look at baseball through if you’re going to understand it.”

Instructors include University of Arizona faculty members who are surgeons, biomechanical engineers, math professors, and teachers of chemical engineering and engineering management. “We are teaching numeracy,” said Valerdi. “Numeracy is being able to use math to make decisions in real life. Financial literacy is all about numeracy.”

It also helps to have engineering students from the University of Arizona sitting at tables with a half dozen at-risk children, answering questions about why they’re going to college, how they picked their major and how they’re going to pay for it all.

“There’s only a six- or seven-year difference between middle school kids and these engineering undergrads, and that’s a much closer relationship than me getting up there and telling them you need to do good in school,” Valerdi said. “Those are the really nice difference makers in the program.”

It’s also the difference between bringing children to the spring training fields and relying on middle school teachers for implementation. But Arizona has a number of remote areas, including Indian reservations, where access to these programs is more difficult.

That’s where training teachers and the help from the Diamondbacks come in. Once the major league club got involved, it funded the whole thing – money to develop a curriculum, train other teachers, run student camps and scale the program statewide.Ricardo Valerdi of the University of Arizona College of Engineering demonstrates basic principles of aerodynamics using a leaf blower. 

Valerdi held the first train the teacher program in June. The Diamondbacks hosted it in their home park, Chase Field. Teachers toured the stadium and received 200 game tickets to give as graduation presents to students who complete the program, Valerdi said.

The Diamondbacks seem happy with their investment so far.

“Providing students with Science of Baseball research-based curriculum in a unique branded format that is both interesting and engaging is an important component in raising the level of interest and outcomes in educational STEM programming,” said Debbie Castaldo, the team’s vice president of corporate and community impact.

Obviously, the children are intrigued. And preliminary results are positive. In pre-tests at the beginning of the pilot program’s third week last year, participants had an average score of 71 percent, which increased to 81 percent by the end of the week. Beginning week six, the pre-test scores were 82 percent, and they soared to 100 percent on post-tests at the end of that week.

For long-term analysis, the program is tracking the students’ performance on standardized tests, the state exam, their attendance and discipline problems at school and their rates of moving on to higher education.

Many factors go into a child’s grades other than attending a baseball camp for a few weeks – parenting, home life, the quality of schoolteachers and the student’s own motivation. That’s why the program also is tracking how the students’ attitudes toward STEM education change over time.

Such a transformation is keenly important to officials at the Arizona Department of Education, who linked Valerdi’s nascent University of Arizona Science of Baseball program up with the Diamondbacks last year. Such partnerships benefit afterschool programs, students, families and the community, said Cindy Trejo, state director of 21st Century Community Learning Centers. The power of the Science of Baseball is that it changes what most students think of as entertainment into a venue filled with STEM learning, she said.

“Families receive mini lessons and experiments demonstrating how STEM is embedded in the game of baseball,” Trejo said. “Teaching families to change the conversation about baseball to STEM learning can have an impact on a child’s engagement in education.”

A perfect storm

Valerdi’s interest in using sports to teach math and engineering principles stemmed from six years at MIT, where he was a research associate in the institute’s Lean Advancement Initiative. A colleague taught sabermetrics, the use of statistics to try to analyze baseball and the game’s players objectively. The term was popularized by Moneyball, a 2003 book by Michael Lewis that examined how the Oakland A’s used data and research to select players.

Coach Sean Payton of the Arizona Diamondbacks makes suggestions on the optimal angle of trajectory that will maximize travel distance for a baseball while three students use a water balloon launcher to test the hypothesis. The optimal trajectory to hit a home run is 35 degrees.The colleague also ran a summer baseball camp and invited Valerdi to come along. Valerdi was hooked and brought the idea of a similar camp with him when he joined Arizona’s industrial engineering department.

“And lo and behold, Arizona is like a huge baseball state with spring training and obviously the D-backs, not to mention the University of Arizona, which won the NCAA championship [in 2012],” Valerdi said.

Each year, the state is home to the Cactus League, one of Major League Baseball’s two spring training leagues. Valerdi also met Arizona baseball head coach Andy Lopez. By then, the associate professor knew he had the resources available to make a difference. Valerdi termed it “a perfect storm.”

“Ultimately as an academic, you want to figure out how you can have impact,” Valerdi said. “And yeah, you can publish in IIE Transactions and go to conferences and do all the technical stuff, but [with this] notion of mixing baseball and math, I realized I could really have an impact here in a slightly different demographic than I’m focusing on. It’s not college students any more, but it’s the pipeline to college students.”

The University of Arizona Science of Baseball started in fall 2012 with an eight-week program instructing students from Mansfeld Middle School across the street. That school happened to be underperforming in math, the demographic the program targets. The Arizona Department of Education heard the news and called. Education officials said they had many schools that would be interested and put Valerdi in touch with the Diamondbacks. One thing led to another, and two months later the program was rebranded with the Diamondbacks’ name.

Now, it’s a year-round program with three formats: the original eight-week program held on successive Saturdays; an afterschool program based on feedback from teachers, which university professors sometimes help with; and a program done on classroom time. Valerdi said the classroom format works best when math and physical education teachers collaborate.

Admittedly, students have a much different experience when they come to the program at the spring training facility, where they can tour the locker room, the weight room and understand what it takes to make a high-performing athlete. That experience is only possible through the Diamondbacks, but the partnership has allowed Valerdi to develop a formal curriculum that he can teach to teachers in a five-hour session. He calls the curriculum the playbook for teachers, and it keeps the children moving.

“When we do the camps ourselves, each coach has the curriculum in their back pocket as a reference,” Valerdi said. “So OK, what do I do next? What kind of measurements do I need to take? What’s the next activity? Boom boom, keep it going.”

The leveraging could continue nationwide – not to mention the nascent cricket program in Australia. Valerdi has discussed further expansions with three other Major League Baseball teams, the San Diego Padres, Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies. He recently visited the Boston Red Sox for a meeting at Fenway Park and has secured a tentative November date to train teachers in Boston. So expect a Red Sox Science of Baseball coming soon. And Valerdi, like his students, seems to be having the time of his life.

“It’s really made my year so different,” he said. “And my knuckleball is getting better.”

Michael Hughes is the managing editor for the Institute of Industrial Engineers.