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Jewish World Review March 5, 2001 / 10 Adar, 5761

Frank Zoretich

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Hey! Look how Shaq put the algebra on that guy

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- TEACHERS can help students tackle mathematics by turning their attention to the sports pages, two educators say.

"Over the years, I've used the sports pages in a whole variety of ways to get people engaged with math - the thrust is math but math in the real world," said Joseph Martinez, a professor of mathematics learning at the University of New Mexico's College of Education.

He and his wife, Nancy Martinez, who was vice president of academic affairs at the now-defunct University of Albuquerque, were co-presenters of a talk, "Using the Sports Pages To Teach and Assess Mathematical Learning," at the recent New Mexico Higher Education Assessment and Retention Conference in Albuquerque.

They have co-authored the books "Math Without Fear: A Guide for Preventing Math Anxiety in Children"" and "Reading and Writing to Learn Mathematics: A Guide and a Resource Book," which includes a chapter on math in the news pages, the financial pages, the display and classified ads, the weather report and the comics as well as in the sports pages.

Although they shared billing for their hourlong session, Joseph Martinez did almost all of the talking for the two of them. He's a big sports fan; she's not.

"The sports pages of a newspaper are a rich and ever-changing source of readings about mathematics," they wrote in a program note for the conference, adding they would focus on "computations with descriptive statistics."

As a sort of pop quiz for the 11 college teachers and administrators who attended their session, they distributed photocopies of sports articles, including some not particularly laden with numbers. Others were mostly tables of statistics - touchdowns, interceptions, yards gained rushing, rebounds and assists, and so on.

Students were asked to take 15 minutes to ponder some questions - such as how the statistics might be different if:

  • The basketball rim were set 1 foot higher for males and 1 foot lower for females.

  • The pitching mound was moved 10 feet farther away from home plate.

  • Another player was added to teams in football, baseball and soccer.

They also asked what statistics would be most useful in predicting who would be the next champions in professional football, baseball, boxing, golf and Olympics events.

"In any enterprise, one of the most challenging kinds of questions is to predict," Joseph Martinez said. How, for example can midseason stats be used to predict end-of-season individual and team rankings?

The quizzes were not graded. Everybody passed just for thinking about the articles and the questions and the box-score statistics and suggesting ways they could be used to bring math to life for students.

The ensuing discussion was not just about math in sports.

"With math, you can go from just the numbers to a philosophy of life," said Julian Vigil, a teacher of English composition at Luna Community College in Las Vegas, N.M.

"Math can be used as a weapon," said David Caffey, dean of institutional effectiveness at Clovis Community College, noting that census statistics will soon be the basis for political redistricting.

"Most people will say sports has absolutely nothing to do with math," Martinez said. But a discussion of sports statistics "at the most basic level is a discussion of measurement - what do we measure and why? We pay people (top professional athletes) a lot for something."

For teachers, he said, "it's important to engage the attention of students, and even those who despise math might like sports."

Students who don't particularly like sports can be engaged by articles that focus on personalities and issues rather than on statistics

"Sports can be used to open the door to math," he said. "You can connect certain kinds of math with sports performance, and then you can engage their thinking at a little bit higher level, the mathematical level."

Working with the sports pages, teachers can lead students into the mathematical realm of means, frequencies, fractions, percentages, decimals, extrapolation, into bar charts and other visual math tools, and into ways of asking qualitative as well as quantitative questions, Martinez said.

"A lot of students are afraid of math," he said. "But math is everywhere. If I don't call it math, they're not upset. But they're still doing math."

Sports works well, he said, "because a lot of people can relate to sports" and because the math comes at students "not just as a problem in a textbook - with no context, no story - but as something in the real world."

Frank Zoretich is a writer with The Tribune in Albuquerque, N.M. Comment by clicking here.

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