The Science of Baseball | Ricardo Valerdi | TEDxTucson


Translator: Nadia Pshenitsyna
Reviewer: Denise RQ Good afternoon. I have a couple of questions
for you before we get started. And I think the questions are motivated to get you to think about
our current situation in the United States in terms of education,
innovation, and wealth. True or false: the United States has more
billionaires than anywhere in the world? (Audience) True.
Ricardo Valerdi: That’s correct. True or false: more patent applications
had been filed from the United States than any other country? ( Audience) True.
RV: Correct. Fewer than half of high school graduates
in the US are ready for college level math true or false? (Audience) True.
RV: Correct. We won’t get there.
(Laughter) Fewer than 5% of college degrees
awarded in the US are in engineering; true or false? (Audience) True.
RV: That’s correct. So I hope that you understand
just from these four questions that we actually live in a crisis,
but we also live in a time of opportunity. Let me talk about Arizona in particular. Arizona ranks 48th in the country
in student spending in education, but we rank 1st in the country
of professional baseball games per capita. (Laughter) 637 games per year,
in case anybody is wondering. It’s almost like having
a double-header every day of the year. So think about that. This presents an opportunity
then to use baseball – which this is the hotbed
literally, of baseball – and use it to leverage our situation
or to improve our situation in education. Now, as an educator and as a baseball fan I love science, technology,
engineering, and math–STEM, which coincidentally is “Mets” backwards. (Laughter) So what I want to talk about
to you today are three things. Number one: math is abstract and that’s
a bit of a problem for students. So we’ll talk about how to resolve it. Number two: math is scary for students, and so, we’ll talk about
some solutions to that. And the issue is
those two are reinforcing: it’s abstract so it becomes scary, and it’s abstract so it’s still scary
no matter what grade level you’re at, so we have to break that cycle. The third thing is we don’t have
enough opportunities to provide hands-on learning in schools; so we’ll talk about
some solutions for that as well, OK? let me talk about the first issue
which is math being too abstract. And we can mostly blame the Greeks, and some French mathematicians,
and some Brits as well, so people like Euler,
Laplace, Descartes. And they are the ones who came up
with a lot of these concepts that we use today
and they are very exciting, they actually help innovation, but they don’t necessarily allow
a third-grader to figure out how to get through the day. I mean, be honest, when was the last time the Pythagorean theorem helped you
get through the work day? But it turns out the Pythagorean theorem
is a very powerful tool in baseball. So let’s do a little bit of math. Here is a right triangle. The distance between home plate
and first base is 90 feet. So if you draw a right triangle,
that could be one of the sides. And we already know the distance, 90. The distance between the first base
and the second base is also 90 feet. So now we know the distance
of the two sides of the triangle, so we can solve for the third. You square 90, and you add it
to another square of 90, and you get the distance
from home plate to second base. And if you did it in your head,
it’s 127 or so. So, good job. So now we know how far the catcher needs to throw
the ball to get to the second base in order to throw a runner out
that may be stealing from first to second. See? So that’s what can help us
make math less abstract; by applying it to a real situation? Let me give you another example. Let’s talk about torque. I could just tell a student:
torque equals force times distance. But that’s not going to mean much
unless you talk about a teeter-totter. And in this particular teeter-totter
we’re balancing two different forces. On the left side is
a 70 pound fourth-grader, on the right side is a 140 pound mascot. That’s Baxter the Cat
for the Diamondbacks. So how do we balance the two sides
if the forces are different? Well, the rule in torque is
you change the distance of the beam, between the beam and the fulcrum, the point where the two sides
are being balanced. So you’ll notice that they are standing
at different distance from the fulcrum, so that’s how the two sides,
the two torques are equal to each other. There’s nobody touching the beam,
there’s somebody there just for safety, But you can see the student now
appreciates what torque is, because is she didn’t,
she’d fall over and hit her head. So our goal is to make
the math and the science so simple that even Yankee fans
will understand it. (Laughter) I’m wearing a Mets shirt,
so you have to understand that. Let’s talk about the angle
of trajectory of a home run. We could just tell the students that the optimal angle of flight
for a sphere is 45 degrees, but they’ll never really remember that,
unless we do an experiment, and they’ll also realize
that the most of the math you learn there is an assumption
that you are dealing with a sphere. This is not a sphere, folks.
This is a baseball. And it has seams and stitches,
216 of them to be exact. I counted them. So that means that the aerodynamics
of a baseball are different than a sphere. So, the optimal angle trajectory
for a home run is not 45 degrees. What we do is we set up an experiment
for students to think about: “Hey, how do we derive the actual value of the optimal angle
of trajectory for a home run?” Let’s set up an experiment. Professional baseball field? Check.
Baseballs? Check. Water balloon launchers, check,
giant protractors, check. We are ready to go.
Now we are doing science. So we hold all the variables constant, that is how much tension or force
you are pulling on the ball, and the only thing that we change is the
angle at which the ball is being launched. And students intuitively know that if you
launch something at a straight angle it’s probably going to be
a line drive or a ground ball. And if you launch something
at too high of an angle, that’s going to be a pop fly. So they are trying to find
what is the optimal angle of trajectory. So this is an empirical experiment. And they learn very quickly
that it’s not 45 degrees, it’s more like 35 or 30 degrees. And then you can compare it
to real data of home runs. Because we have
all this data available to us. Baseball truly is
a statistician’s wet dream, because all this great data is available. Most of you have heard of ‘Moneyball’. ‘Moneyball’ is really based
on the idea of sabermetrics, which is using data to try to find
inefficiencies in the market. And I lived in Boston;
actually, during the time when the curse of the Bambino was broken. So I became a bit of a fan, and after winning
the first World Series in 86 years you sort of you tend to gravitate
towards that emotion. And what I learned is
that Boston in particular was really a baseball-crazy town. But then I moved to Arizona and realized this is really the crazy
baseball town, which is great. So what baseball provides is
a laboratory for experimentation, a laboratory for learning: physiology, biomechanics,
statistics, geometry. We not only teach them how to play
baseball but we also teach them how to use their math,
and science skills, and challenges, in order to understand the game better. So let’s talk about the third issue which is not enough opportunities
for hands-on learning in the classroom. What we’ve done
with our “Science in baseball” program in Arizona, California,
Illinois, and even Australia, is we’ve created
a curriculum for teachers. They take the lessons,
and they take the kit of materials, everything they need to run these lessons: baseball cards, water balloon launchers,
heart rate monitors, all the materials they need to make
the baseball field the classroom. We empower these teachers, and that becomes our point
of impact or our leverage point because for every teacher that we train, they can directly impact
30 kids, at least 30 kids. So, so far we trained
200 teachers in Arizona. Do the math, 200 times 30
is 600 students. That’s just in Arizona. And we are growing this program worldwide. Now, the idea is not to stop
with baseball, actually. We also created
the “Science of soccer” program, we are in conversation
with some football teams. Heck, I’ve even been asked
to create the “Science of cricket.” A couple of interesting unintended
consequences have come from this. The first one is that these teachers
end up creating their own lessons which is fantastic,
that’s what we want to see. We want to empower these teachers to really be the deployment
mechanism for the program. The second unintended consequence is that we found students
have taken their interest in sports and that’s translated
into other things on their campus, such as science fair projects. We’ve seen the number
of the science fair projects increase in terms of their application to sports. One particular example,
at Wickenburg high school here in Arizona, was the creation
of a baseball bat in woodshop. There is a lot of math involved
in designing a baseball bat and optimizing the sweet spot, because
that’s where you want to hit the ball. That’s been a great second order of fact that has grown from
our curriculum and our program. The second thing we’ve found interesting,
and you’ll notice from this photo as well, is the involvement
of girls in the program. It turns out that even though the boys outperformed
the girls on the baseball field, the girls outperformed
the boys in the classroom. So it gives them both
an opportunity to shine. And this is great, because then the girls
end up teaching the boys all the math, and then the boys end up
helping the girls on the field. So it’s really a nice blend
of skills and abilities. What I want you to think about is how math and science can help you
see the world a little bit differently. Next time you are at a baseball game,
I challenge you to do the following: don’t just think about
the peanuts and the Cracker Jacks, I want you to think about the psychology; what’s going on between
the pitcher and the batter? I want you to think about the physiology: what’s going on in terms of training? Did that player take
performance enhancing drugs? What’s going on in terms
of the physics? Did the actual batter hit it
on the sweet spot? So I challenge you to think about sports and think about math and science together, because it makes them both
a lot more interesting. And what I tell students is
math and science plus baseball: exponentially awesome. Thank you. (Applause)

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