From the NFL to MIT: How John Urschel Is Making Math More Interesting

—Courtesy of Texas Instruments

Teachers must reject the idea that studying STEM feels like eating your vegetables

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As former offensive lineman for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens and a current doctoral candidate in applied mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, John Urschel has managed to find success in two very different fields. Since retiring from professional football this past summer, he has become a visible proponent for math education through school visits and public appearances. In a Q&A with Education Week Commentary’s Mary Hendrie, Urschel reflects on his own experiences working to convince young students that math can be cool and discusses the future of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education more generally.

You’ve previously described the challenge of getting kids excited about math as “an exercise in training to help students solve the problems they will face in life.” As a vocal champion of STEM education, what do you think works when it comes to making math relevant for students who may not (yet) have a love for subject?

Math doesn’t have to be an exercise in drudgery, a list of questions that demand using a formula. It’s not about being able to match the answer in the back of the book. Math is fundamentally problem-solving. That can mean doing puzzles or playing games, or finding ways to connect math to problems that kids face in everyday life. That could mean connecting questions to some larger hands-on project or finding problems that are outside the textbook.

Texas Instruments brought me to a school in Baltimore to help students explore the STEM behind making ice cream. You can bet the students weren’t bored when they realized a kitchen can be a laboratory where all sorts of delicious science happens.

Perhaps, it also means expanding the type of math that kids are exposed to, including things like statistics and logic.

It’s important for teachers to express their own love of the subject, not just to accept that math is like eating vegetables.”

Looking back on your own K-12 experience, what advice would you offer teachers on the frontlines to instill a lifelong love of math in their students, especially as the subject matter increases in difficulty?

It’s important for teachers to express their own love of the subject, not just to accept that math is like eating vegetables. Passion can be contagious. And if a teacher encounters a kid with an aptitude or interest in STEM, he or she should encourage that kid to pursue it as an important and exciting ambition. In that respect, it wouldn’t hurt teachers to be more like football coaches. Kids should be encouraged to think that what they do matters, and they should dream big.

Moving beyond the classroom level, are there any structural changes to education policy more broadly you would like to see in how we approach math education in this country?

Not every kid needs to take calculus. It may be more important to give kids a firm grounding in things like logic than making sure they can do integrals. Math also has huge applications in a lot of vocational skills. Maybe it makes sense to give students more opportunities to gain expertise and the chance to innovate in more career-oriented areas, at an earlier age.

For the past decade, we’ve been hearing quite a few concerns about gaps in our STEM workforce, both real and projected. Do you think there’s a disconnect between how we teach math in school and the demands the job market will place on students when they finish school?

I do think that education could be more connected to career paths. That’s why I really like the "STEM Behind Cool Careers" [program]. It shows students that whatever they are into, whether it’s fashion design or flying, STEM is in it, too.

But there is also a larger dynamic worth considering: We may think that it’s OK to be bad at or hate math. In fact, it’s kind of a national joke. We need to change that attitude, and that begins in schools. One example includes emphasizing the fact that math is not all about worksheets and tests—any more than history is about dates or English is about grammar. Those things are important, but as a means to an end.

Finally, as someone who has forged a career in both professional sports and the study of high-level mathematics, is there anything you think is missing from our national conversations about STEM pathways?

The more exposure students have to STEM, the better. But even as we talk about how practical and relevant math is, we should also remember that it can be like a game—and fun. There is an element of competition to STEM subjects—even if the person you’re competing against is yourself.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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