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Pitch Perfect

An MIT summer camp that mixes math, physics, and baseball gets local middle-school boys excited about science.
December 20, 2011

On a sweltering July morning, baseballs are flying all over Killian Court. Tourists meander down the pathways, pausing occasionally in the line of fire as students enrolled in the MIT Science of Baseball Program launch ball after ball across the green expanse. The goal? To determine the speed of each throw by measuring the distance the ball travels and the time it takes to land. Rate equals distance over time, after all, and these boys, who’ve just finished seventh or eighth grade, could all tell you all about it.

While the two lanes striping Killian Court flicker with baseballs, another group of boys lines up at a third lane tucked away under the trees near Building 3. Here, A. J. Hansborough ‘12, a catcher with MIT’s baseball team and a junior instructor with the program, gets into a crouch and lets students take turns hurling their best fastballs at him. They are testing an easier way to determine a ball’s speed: a radar gun.

After a short lunch, the band of young athletes presses on to the baseball diamond. The day is at its hottest; sweat beads off the flushed foreheads and cheeks of everyone over 18. But the boys are nonchalant about the heat. Just another day in the program, as Tajae Smith, 14, explains with a cool smile.

The MIT Science of Baseball Program (MSBP) is an annual Institute event, a four-week summer day camp that’s just as much class time as it is let’s-play-ball. Boys from underserved areas of Boston and Cambridge are encouraged to apply, and all accepted students receive a full scholarship. Every summer since 2007, MSBP students have spent their mornings filling mental tool kits with launch angles, field dimensions, statistics, and proportions; when they head onto the field each afternoon, the boys put theory into practice.

Today, however, isn’t just for the MSBP students; the program and MIT are hosting Baseball for All, a nonprofit organization that provides opportunities for girls, too, to get involved with the sport. With girls around, the boys are showing off—they’re just a little louder and more rambunctious than usual—and a healthy bit of competition crops up regularly throughout the day, even in the classroom.

The morning begins with coach Andy Andres, a senior lecturer in natural science and mathematics at Boston University, teaching the kids about the ins and outs of projectile motion. With the sun shining brightly and the temperature hovering in the low 80s, the boys are more fidgety than usual, and even those motivated to learn about the science behind baseball itch to get outdoors.

“My MSBP students better know the definition of a projectile,” the coach booms, trying to get the bustling classroom in order. He calls on an eighth grader named Martin, who hasn’t raised his hand and seems at risk of folding under the performance pressure. Finally, after heckling from the crowd, he nails it: “It’s an object thats only force acting upon it is gravity.” Some classmates clap and cheer enthusiastically before Coach Andy jokingly threatens to make them do push-ups as punishment.

“This is not the kind of physics you’re gonna get in middle school, or even high school,” he reminds everyone.

Throughout the morning’s class, Coach Andy sketches rough approximations of baseballs, diamonds, and players on a whiteboard, representing gravity with squiggles. He may be no artist, but he knows his math and physics—and, more important, how to communicate tough ideas to middle schoolers. He enlists help from five MIT teaching assistants, four of whom play on MIT’s baseball team; all five are eager to spread their passion for baseball and engineering. (Hansborough is a chemical-engineering major; pitchers Kiel Jindra ‘14 and Rob Bertucci ‘14 and infielder Jonathan Rea ‘14 are studying engineering; Victor Nevarez ‘12, who played varsity baseball in high school, is a mechanical-engineering major.) Today, Andres calls on Hansborough and Jindra to toss balls around 3-270 to illustrate the theory of projectile velocity.

Skeete fires a ball in a scrimmage on the field.

Throwing a ball straight up isn’t a great way to gain distance with a baseball, Andres explains to a giggling class. As the tossed balls fall with a thud on the carpeted classroom floor, the impact of his gravity squiggles becomes clear. By the time the kids leave the classroom, they’ve heard enough to make them experts on projectile motion.

In fact, some students really take to both the scientific and athletic sides of the program. Two seventh graders from the 2009 MSBP class performed so well they went on to another of MIT’s middle-school outreach programs, the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Summer Institute, where they studied a more rigorous curriculum of robotics and pre-calculus. Since moving up to high school, both students have continued to explore the sciences through MIT’s Saturday Engineering and Enrichment Discovery (SEED) Academy.

But it doesn’t turn out that way for everyone. The boys are tested on math and science when they arrive and throughout every MSBP summer session, and their final scores don’t necessarily signify the makings of physicists and math whizzes. ­Hansborough now remembers feeling a bit deflated when he saw the test scores from this class; they didn’t improve nearly as much as he’d hoped they would.

Still, he came to realize that there’s more to the program than grades and analytical results. “The goal was for the coaching staff to tell our stories and to inspire the kids that math and science can be both fun and applicable and that hard work can get you anywhere you want to go in life,” he says. “This experience taught me that you can’t allow yourself to get caught up in the bottom line as your only measure of success in something.”

The program’s success by other measures can be seen and heard all throughout the day. From breakfast until the end-of-day recap, the boys strengthen new friendships, argue about the day’s lessons, and give it their all on the field to show what they’ve learned. Their enthusiasm for science is palpable.

“I mean, I think I’m good at science and all,” says John Skeete, an eighth grader in a Superman cap who likes to talk about young adult literature. “But I never really thought I could go to this kind of awesome school.” He says now he thinks an engineering degree would be “pretty sweet.” His friend Evan snorts, assuring everyone listening that robotics is the way to go. But either way, the boys sense that attending MSBP gives them a better chance of ending up at a school like MIT. “And for real,” John says, “we, like, have an ‘in’ now.”

The opportunity to get boys excited about science and engineering is exactly what draws Hansborough and his fellow instructors to the program. “I had the chance to make a difference in the lives of the 30 boys I taught this summer,” he says. “It was actually while at an interview for an engineering internship where this suddenly occurred to me. One of the questions I was asked on this interview was ‘If you didn’t have to worry about finances or anything along these lines, what would you be doing?’ My answer was MSBP.”

Whether or not all the mathematical equations will stick with the students, they understand the gist at the time. Chatting after the morning physics session, Tajae Smith and his classmates agree that one of the “coolest parts” of the program’s curriculum—on the agenda for an upcoming class—is learning how to calculate baseball stats. They’re looking forward to being able to figure out their own earned run averages and batting averages instead of just memorizing those of major leaguers. By the time the program is over, they’ll have learned to calculate just about anything baseball-related.

In the classroom, teaching assistant Victor Nevarez ’12 works through some equations relating linear velocity to angular velocity.

Until those calculations begin, they have time to experiment with gravity by tossing baseball caps at each other while Coach Andy isn’t looking. A San Francisco Giants hat comes flying from the back of the stadium-style lecture room and smacks Skeete in the back of the head. He jerks around wide-eyed and winds up as if to return the hat to its rightful owner. Some of the visiting girls shake their heads; others giggle. All full of projectile theory and bounding energy, the kids are eager to head outside to Killian Court to practice what they’ve just been taught before they start playing some baseball.

But while putting what they’ve learned into action might help the boys improve their game, the program’s objective isn’t simply to make them better baseball players, of course. Schools with lower-income children tend to score low on science and math literacy, which is why the program targets this particular demographic.

Americans in general have seen science and math literacy decline for years. When evaluated on an international scale, U.S. children have fallen behind. In 2009, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reported in the Program for International Student Assessment that by age 15, American students ranked 25th and 17th in math and science, respectively—out of 34 industrialized countries.

Organizers of the MSBP hope that combining science with the national pastime will help put a dent in these grim statistics. Kate Youmans, manager of the School of Engineering’s middle-school outreach programs, believes that active participation in science and math at an early age will help these boys gain a competitive advantage in an increasingly technical world. By introducing them to a campus bursting with math and science—a campus where those subjects are considered totally awesome—Youmans, the organizers, and the instructors hope to open the students’ eyes to just how cool, and important, math and science are.

By early afternoon, the students roll out to the baseball diamond. Oblivious to the heat, Skeete talks animatedly about how much he’s learned in the classes this summer, then craftily segues back into a conversation about Percy Jackson and the Olympians he’d been having that morning at breakfast.

When everyone reaches the diamond, each boy goes off to his assigned place for three-inning scrimmages, and coaches and teaching assistants work one-on-one with the boys on the field to improve their athletic performance. Coach Andy wanders around the field and assumes different roles, from pitcher to pep-talker; the five teaching assistants keep the energetic and competitive group orderly and focused.

There are few squabbles. The boys get along well in this setting, even if they’re losing to the visiting girls. Despite the potential for chaos in assembling 30 adolescent boys, a handful of undergraduate athletes, and one college professor-slash-coach, it all runs smoothly. The scores hardly seem to matter at all.

As the afternoon wraps up, Coach Andy and Hansborough get the boys to recount the things they learned that day. They learned how to calculate speed. How to calculate distance. Air time. They learned how to use a radar gun, and how, basically, it works.

John Skeete, the kid in the Superman cap, has the last word: “I’m pretty sure I can hit a lot farther now, too.”

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