Former NFL Lineman, Now at MIT, Talks Math and STEM

John Urschel, the former offensive lineman for the NFL team Baltimore Ravens, has switched careers and there’s nothing offensive about it.

Urschel, the 2013 winner of the prestigious William V. Campbell Trophy, often called the “academic Heisman,” retired last year to pursue a brilliant future in mathematics at MIT, where he is studying for a doctoral degree in applied mathematics.

Since retiring, the scholar-athlete has become an advocate of math education, visiting schools and meeting young people, according to Education Week.

Here’s an excerpt of a Q&A between Urschel and EW that discusses math and how to make it more interesting to kids.

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 the 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.


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.

Read more at Education Week.

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