Note, this Op-Ed originally appeared in US News & World Report written by Kelvin Beachum Jr. and Jesse Lovejoy on May 23.
Football and STEAM education might not seem like a logical tandem on the surface. Through deeper exploration, we discover these seemingly opposite activities are a complementary match in inspiring young people to explore new subjects and further define their passions, futures and career opportunities. The game of football is influenced by fundamental principles of science and incorporates subjects from physics to geometry to material science. Applying these concepts can be the ultimate common denominator for kids entering a formal or informal learning environment with questions about why STEAM matters, why it’s relevant or why it’s cool. Solving for that last question is crucial to engagement.
The future of experience-based STEAM programming takes on even more importance as the landscape of nationwide education policy continues to take shape. Even without the specter of decreased funding or a reconstruction of nationwide academic standards, the idea of students accessing eye-opening and longitudinal learning opportunities outside of their daily school environments is something that lands easily and positively on an educator’s ears as they examine every possible way to activate the intrigue and potential of their learners.
As an NFL athlete and STEAM education advocate, I understand the importance of applied learning. In April 2017, I hosted the second annual Kelvin Konnects STEAM initiative in my hometown of Mexia, Texas, for the entire school district. The three-day camp offers STEAM programming, interactive activities and museum-type exhibits for students to witness how the disciplines they learn in the classroom can be applied to daily experiences.
The San Francisco 49ers STEAM Education Program creates a path to engagement with STEAM subjects by using football and Levi’s Stadium to demystify subjects such as environmental sustainability, structural engineering and physics. We leverage the power of the game, the players and the most tech-savvy sports venue in the world to open kids’ hearts and minds to subjects for which they may believe they have no aptitude for or interest in. The program lessons help them understand these concepts are actually tangible, approachable and easy to see in real life. The goal is to light a fire that says to them: “The things that I like are made possible by the things I study.”
The two of us, along with the 49ers, also teamed up with Chevron, the official “STEM Education Partner” for the 2016 Super Bowl Host Committee, to help at the Chevron STEM Zone at Super Bowl City during the week leading up to the 2016 Super Bowl. The Chevron STEM Zone is an interactive space that demonstrates how science, technology, engineering and math fuels innovation all around us – through the lens of football. By interacting with the exhibits, participants learned how the principles of STEM are intertwined with the game of football in ways they may not have considered. Fans were able to throw a football and measure the arc, accuracy and velocity of their pass. They were also treated to an evolution of football equipment through the lens of the engineering design process and material science.
Informal educational opportunities like those we support and oversee are not a comprehensive solution to the fact that American schoolchildren are behind their global counterparts, not only in academic performance in key disciplines, but also in the inherent interest they have in those subjects. These programs can be a catalyst for both interest and understanding that classroom subjects directly correlate to real-life experiences that students willingly pursue. This understanding can then lead to larger educational adoption of specialized STEAM curriculum, custom-built after-school programming, increased focus on teaching to modern learning skills, and an overall effort to embrace the “learn by doing” and “fail-forward” process-driven models to learning.
A constant challenge among educators is to figure out how to push the right buttons to help trigger the passions that drive students. The overwhelming majority of students – especially those in underserved or economically disadvantaged circumstances – have not (yet) had the exposure they need to figure out what they care about and how their educational pursuits can be a bridge to a life in that world. By using football as a platform, we can help provide these opportunities, and as we continue to explore partnerships and pathways to increase the number of venues where this type of programming is available, we can both highlight and embrace the growing awareness of STEAM applications in the “real world.”