Sports as a Path to STEM Education

Sports as a Path to STEM Education

By Alex Urrea | Eduscape 
alex@eduscape.com

Brooklyn Nets center Jarrett Allen is making a difference on the court for a rebuilding team, but he is also finding creative ways to extend his influence outside basketball. (Demetrius Freeman/ The New York Times)

The recent article in the NY Times about Jarrett Allen, the rising 20-year old from the Brooklyn Nets and his commitment to advance math skills among kids by – presenting them with everyday challenges to solve got me thinking. Have we even begun to explore the intersection of STEM Education and Sports, and the opportunity to build bridges that our kids and teachers can cross for better understanding? The clear answer is “heck no!” and therein lies the opportunity.

The beauty of a young man with a tremendous future taking time out (DURING a LONG NBA SEASON nonetheless), to work with kids is a testament unto itself. It’s even more impactful that he has them applying skills using basic tools that didn’t require an expensive and poorly planned Makerspace or STEM Lab. A calculator, some paper and pencil, and a grocery store. “It started with destroying stuff, I would break things apart, then put them together.” Allen said. How much can stuff really cost? Yet, many schools are building out Makerspaces and STEM Labs for tens of thousands of dollars. They purchase 3D printers, laser cutters, STEM “kits” and furniture that moves, which has served in most schools as more of a photo opportunity than a successful movement. All in an attempt to chase a trend that’s yet to prove with any empirical data that there are improvements to the learning process, let alone classroom innovation.

Every plan requires a purpose, Allen’s stated purpose for the kids was to shop for groceries and stay within a budget. Simple, yet contextual and practical. He even modeled the process for the kids, which is challenging for schools to do when the majority of Makerspace or STEM Labs are not used by over 95% of the teaching faculty. They are mostly run by a single person, which is equivalent to a single player being responsible for 95% of his or her team’s points per game.

Cheyanne Crowder, 12, calculates the remaining budget for food items during a shopping trip Allen designed to be both helpful and educational. (Demetrius Freeman/ The New York Times)

There are many attributes that successful STEM programs share with successful sports teams; first, they have a shared purpose; second, there is focus on process and continuous improvement; third, coaches design strategies that differentiate not emulate; and fourth, there is no “I” in team. Shared collaboration can help an NBA team thrive as much as it can a STEM cohort of 5th graders working on a coding project together.

The next time you plan a STEM program, start by watching how a great team with selfless players, led by a great coach executes. Then, research what happens between their games in practice; they plan, they try, they fail, and then try again. I’m certain you can borrow many of these principles in designing the types of learning outcomes you wish for your STEM program. Thank you Jarrett Allen!

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