We are all in Violent Agreement

Sports for STEM Education is a huge opportunity

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the Beyond Innovation Conference at the San Francisco 49ers Levi Stadium. On May 9th, from 8 am to 6 pm, over 200 people from pro sports, youth development, and STEM education came together to share ideas about capitalizing on the power of sports for STEM education. Several dozen speakers participated in panel discussions sharing their insights and experiences with how they became interested in STEM careers.

Unsurprisingly, one of the most memorable origin stories came from someone at Pixar. Danielle Feinberg, the director of Photography for Pixar, shared how she, as the only female in a high school mechanics class, was the sole student who successfully rebuilt a functional lawnmower. This showed her that its “good to be different” and gave her confidence to pursue a career in the male dominated STEM fields. She went on to create cinematic magic at Pixar developing some of the iconic movies of my childhood.

While Danielle’s wonderful story was a crowd favorite, it was a little outside the norm for the individuals I spoke to at the conference. Her memorable STEM “AHA” moment took place within the confines of the traditional STEM Pipeline, namely a technical high school class. Most of the folks I heard from and spoke to at the conference had a STEM origin story centered on connections between sports and STEM. The Director of the 49ers Foundation, Joanne Pasternack, shared that she became interested in STEM through applications in figure skating. Due to the fact that this was a STEM-Sports conference this seems unsurprising, however it was extremely refreshing for me as someone who typically operates in the STEM education space.

When I speak at STEM education events, I am usually in the minority of folks who are advocating for STEM outreach outside the confines of robotics, maker spaces, and other hands-on STEM-centric activities. When I talk about how studying 2-d particle kinematics in physics taught me to dunk in basketball, I usually get chuckles and not much else. When I talk about the youth programs I run at 4th Family Inc that use the Slam Dunk as venue to teach the scientific method, folks at STEM education conferences are excited, but most of them don’t know enough about sports to replicate our successes.

For many folks in STEM who were engaged in STEM as youth within the context of traditional STEM education, sports as an arena for STEM enrichment is a foreign concept. In my academic writing with Dr. Ron Eglash, we talk about the concept of “credentialing capital” which indicates a shared passion for an activity between an educator and youth. Much like credentials allow access to restricted areas in a building, shared credentialing capital allows educators to authentically bring STEM into previously “restricted” areas such as sports without seeming to be pandering to youth. An appreciation for the importance of this concept was in full effect at the Beyond Innovation Conference. The diversity of thought and perspective was inspiring. For the first time, I felt like I met a group of similarly “credentialed” people who shared both STEM expertise and an appreciation for sports culture.


Sport is powerful because it transcends cultural barriers and can reach into populations of youth who are marginalized in the classroom. To quote Nick Keller, the Founder and President of Beyond Sport:

Sport offer redemption for youth who experience deep anguish because they don’t excel in the classroom

This quote succinctly summarizes the potential of sports for STEM education. Student self-efficacy is a crucial component of student success. Students already marginalized in education due to social, racial, and economic forces often replace educational aspiration with athletic aspiration as a defensive mechanism. These students cannot be engaged with traditional STEM outreach methods because they do not have sufficient starting interest. Engaging youth athletes with STEM enrichment as a tool for athletic improvement can show that these educational and athletic aspirations are not mutually exclusive.

Shane Battier, former NBA player, now head of the Miami Heat Analytics Staff, said it best:

The way I look at it is it’s just another way, like honing your jump shot or honing your jump hook or getting faster or stronger, to gain a competitive advantage on the basketball court, this time using numbers and data.

This is what has me excited about the potential for sports to improve access to STEM education. If youth can be shown that STEM knowledge improves athletic performance, it opens a huge new population of youth to STEM exposure. Community role models like coaches and older players can serve as advocates for STEM on the playing field itself! Students excluded from the traditional STEM pipeline can have the opportunity to have their own “STEM AHA” moment within sports that leads them to pursue a career in STEM. This will not only provides much needed diversity for the STEM fields, but it also provides economic mobility for marginalized groups in society. Once this approach gains momentum, it will continue to grow as more STEM professionals come from different backgrounds.

All movements need a start however. The right people need to be in the room at the same time. I met with grassroots organizations in youth development for running, figure skating, soccer, rugby, basketball, baseball, and hockey. There is an entire youth sports infrastructure around the world that is looking for ways to empower youth not just as athletes, but also as scholars. Steve Woodhead from Chevron summarized the mood at the conference:

We are all in Violent Agreement: Sports for STEM Engagement is a huge opportunity

Lets take advantage.

John Drazan

Twitter: @Sports2STEM

Website: 4thfamily.org

5/16/2017

Albany, NY