Science of Sport Partnership with MLB, MLS and NBA Excites Nearly 500K Kids to STEM

Alumnus Ricardo Valerdi teaches students STEM through the joy of sports.

“Ask a classroom of third or fourth graders, ‘Raise your hand if you like math,’” said Ricardo Valerdi, M.S. ’02, Ph.D. ’05, “and most of them would raise their hand.”

“Wait a year or two after that,” he added, “and most of them would not.

“In elementary school, math and STEM can be really difficult, and [kids] don’t have the emotional tools to overcome the challenges and struggles,” continued Valerdi, who studied systems architecture and industrial and systems engineering at USC.

Now Valerdi, a professor of systems and industrial engineering at the University of Arizona who was named that school’s Distinguished Outreach Professor in 2020, looks for ways to get kids interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM fields.

That’s what inspired Science of Sport, a nonprofit organization he founded that uses sports to explain mathematical and scientific concepts in a way that engages young people. Since its creation, Science of Sport has entered into successful partnerships with several professional leagues, including Major League Soccer, Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association, as well as the NCAA.

Science and sport have long been an appealing combination for Valerdi. At USC, he had a string of influential professors who promoted the mechanics of sports. One of them was Stan Settles, professor emeritus of industrial and systems engineering, who inspired him by building a superfast car that he raced on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, zooming over 200 miles per hour.

Unlike robotics clubs or engineering clubs, which cater to students who want to pursue careers in STEM fields, Valerdi hoped Science of Sport would also interest kids who struggle with math and science. “Our goal is not to make everybody an engineer or mathematician,” he said. “Our goal is to get everybody to be proficient in math and science because it will be useful regardless of whatever job they have.”

Science of Sport offers services including field trip planning, after-school programs, summer camps and curriculum development. Lessons like how to measure your wingspan, the engineering of stadium design, and how to compute baseball statistics help students understand important mathematical and scientific skills. Beyond the classroom, students are welcomed onto the field. Yes, that’s right — the actual athletic field, where they see these lessons in action.

“The reason why it has sticking power to us is because the sport makes it real,” Valerdi said. “They no longer think it’s abstract because they see the physical action taking place.”

To date, 495,000 kids have been involved with Science of Sport, 5,000 teachers have been trained to teach its curriculum, 20,000 STEM kits have been handed out in classrooms, and over 100 lessons and activities have been created by the Science of Sport team.

The Arizona Diamondbacks were the first professional team to sign on with Science of Sport. Today, the organization maintains partnerships with more than 50 teams, including the Los Angeles Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies, as well as the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, New York Knicks and Memphis Grizzlies.