STEM Education and Science of Baseball Unite for K12 Teachers on Arizona Diamonds

With an assist from the Arizona Diamondbacks, teachers at Arizona Virtual Academy (AZVA) are hitting a home run by bringing STEM education (science, technology, engineering, math) to life.

More than a dozen AZVA educators recently received instruction at Chase Field in Phoenix—not on how to throw a curveball or handle a bat but on ways to introduce students to science, math, and technology by way of baseball. What they learned will not only serve as the basis for the new Science of Baseball Club at AZVA, but will be integrated into the curriculum for students at all grade levels.

The initiative is about making STEM education meaningful and fun. “Counting balls and strikes is not fun,” asserts Dr. Ricardo Valerdi, Associate Professor of the University of Arizona, the program’s founder. “But launching baseballs with a water balloon launcher over the outfield wall is super fun.”

Valerdi spent a day instructing the AZVA staff on interactive and entertaining ways to drive home the connection between baseball and STEM. Utilizing techniques modeled after a similar program at MIT, his objective was to train teachers to implement similar lessons in their classrooms.

Through Science of Baseball, students will study everything from statistics, measurements, and geometry to nutrition, physiology, and reaction time. When they look at the trajectory of a 400-foot home run, they’ll take into account atmospheric conditions such as temperature, wind, and air density while also considering factors like backspin, velocity, and ballpark dimensions.

“I don’t know very much about baseball, and I’m even a little shy when it comes to higher level mathematics,” says Banji Judge, AZVA’s Community Liaison, who went through the teacher education program. “But this makes it real for everyone.”

“Whether you’re a third-grade girl who’s never seen a game, an eighth-grade boy who knows nothing about baseball or a sixth-grader who only knows baseball and knows next to nothing about science or math, this curriculum brings to life subjects like statistics and physiology. By explaining it with baseball, the lessons aren’t scary, they’re fun.”

Valerdi observes that it’s very much a program for both genders. “Even though the boys outperform the girls on the baseball field, girls outperform the boys in the classroom,” he says. “So it gives both an opportunity to shine.”

Arizona Virtual Academy, like K12-powered schools across the country, is taking STEM to heart, finding new ways to spark interest in all students.

“We definitely want this program to appeal to advanced learners,” says Jennifer Arias, K12’s local development manager for AZVA. “But what I really like about this program is that it can help all students by bridging a connection for kids who might be struggling, too. We’re trying to educate all of our kids and get them ready for the future, whether they’re college- or career-bound.”

Arias noted that AZVA already offers classes in robotics, video games and basic engineering, but that Science of Baseball “has all of AZVA talking.”

Through AZVA’s “Street  Team,” the Science in Baseball program is extending beyond the classrooms in Arizona, with one-day educational visits outside of the Phoenix area to places like Kingman, Arizona, where that school’s science program is also developing a community garden—not only to learn about healthy foods but to share with the community.

“Students in some areas have never been to a ballgame, and this opens up an entirely new world,” Judge says.

“What baseball provides is a laboratory for experimentation and learning: physiology, biomechanics, statistics, geometry,” says Valerdi, a man who knows his audience. Wearing a Mets jersey (“Mets is STEM spelled backward,” he notes) during a Ted Talk seminar taped in December,  he jokes that: “Our goal is to make the math and science so simple that even Yankee fans will understand it.”

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In a more serious vein, he calls it a “crisis” that currently only half of the U.S. high school grads are ready to take college-level math and that only five percent of U.S. college degrees are awarded in engineering. He notes that Arizona, while ranked 48th in student spending, leads the U.S. in professional baseball games played per capita. Therein, lies the opportunity.

Baseball of Science is expected to directly impact more than 500 AZVA students in its first season and expose hundreds more to the connections between baseball and STEM.

“So we’re not only educating them about STEM, we’re creating some new fans,” he says.

That’s a win-win for the home team.

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