Ricardo Valerdi is already seeing his year-old Science of Baseball program at the University of Arizona hit the big leagues.
Thanks to a partnership with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Valerdi and his team of UA student and alumni volunteers have taken the show on the road.
"UA and the D-backs have overlapping interests in making Arizona a better place to live," said Valerdi, an associate professor in systems and industrial engineering. “Having a Major League Baseball team put its brand behind the program has been a force multiplier.”
The Science of Baseball program may have scored a home run with the Diamondbacks, but the game is far from over.
"The motivation for the Diamondbacks Science of Baseball program is to promote real-world applications of numeracy – the ability to reason and apply simple numerical concepts," Valerdi said. "Baseball provides a rich laboratory to apply fundamental math skills like measurement, geometry, probability and statistics."
For the 40 girls and boys, assisted by Diamondbacks Academy coach Sean Payton, the first Arizona Diamondbacks Science of Baseball camp was held on July 20 at the team’s spring training facility in Scottsdale, Ariz. It was an opportunity to test baseball’s math and science concepts on a major league field.
"Students got hands-on experience on what it must feel like when Paul’s Goldschmidt’s bat makes contact with a ball at a 35-degree angle – the optimal home run angle – when they launched a major league ball from a protractor-guided, human-powered sling shot," said Ann Wilkey, director of systems engineering research and continuing education development for the UA in Phoenix. Wilkey worked with Valerdi to develop the camp's curriculum.
Some of the lessons were on the field; others were in the classroom. When the students gathered in groups to complete lessons and worksheets on topics such as statistics, ball trajectories, elasticity and nutrition, Wilkey was not the least bit concerned that some of the topics might seem dry.
"These areas come to life when calculating Goldschmidt’s batting average improvement from 2011 to 2012, and predicting his RBI and batting average performance at the end of the 2013 regular season," she enthused.
Before the students got down to the business of science, however, they were treated to a guided tour of the Diamondbacks Salt River Fields locker room, training room, workout facility and camp by Diamondbacks executive Daren Heaton and his colleague Alexa Lezecky, who organized the camp.
"We are excited to provide this opportunity to students in Arizona," Heaton said.
"By incorporating STEM with baseball we are able connect educational elements in an engaging and interactive way," Heaton said. "We hope using the Diamondbacks Science of Baseball curriculum will trigger students into thinking outside the box while providing these students with a fun experience at our spring training facility."
Then Valerdi introduced the students to camp volunteers – graduates of the UA College of Engineering – all of whom were quick to make the connection between what happens in camp and what happens in school.
"The program participants are taught math and science concepts under the guise of baseball," said volunteer Luiz Almanza, who recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in systems engineering and now works for US Airways in Phoenix. "Most of the time they are learning something new but don't realize it because they are drawn to the fun of baseball."
Almanza and Kenji Hernandez, a fellow volunteer and recent master’s graduate in industrial engineering who works for General Motors, encouraged students to take in all the skills they were learning. Systems engineering senior Sergio Ortiz helped the students with measurements and math, and mechanical engineering student Maurissa Wortham promoted women in engineering.
"Being a woman in engineering and having the opportunity to work with the Diamondbacks Science of Baseball is fantastic," said Wortham, who is fond of math, science and sports.
"I think that some of the girls who show up are unsure about whether or not this camp is for them. It is. Science and math are not gender-specific," Wortham said. "I hope that I can be an example to these girls by showing them that they should always do what interests them. They should never pay attention to what other people’s opinions of their interests may be."
Like all the volunteers, Wortham noted the direct link between her engineering classes at UA and the topics covered in the camp – for example how UA engineering undergraduates learn to solve projectile motion problems with calculus while students at the camp launch baseballs as projectiles and study their trajectory and distance traveled.
“What we’re doing at the camps with the students is a really accurate representation of concepts that are extremely important at university education level,” Wortham said.