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Tackling Tech: NFL Teams, Players & Partners Advance STEM

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(Tony Avelar/AP Images for Chevron)

The national non-profit provides STEM curriculum to over 5,000 elementary, middle and high schools. The curriculum makes up the must-have foundation for programs that teach science, technology, engineering and math (and more) in America's schools.

White played with the Detroit Lions, Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons, where he closed his career after Super Bowl XXXIII. He was development director for Ohio State's College of Engineering from 2010-2012, after which he was appointed to Project Lead the Way.

The NFL veteran also spoke at Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day at John Deere Davenport Works, Rock Island High School and was the keynote speaker at the 53rd annual banquet of the Quad-City Engineering & Science Council at John Deere World Headquarters on Thursday night, according to a local newspaper report.

The Bottom Line

With resource-rich groups taking on STEM from the top and grassroots programs coming at the challenge from below, look for the gap containing students who have but been fully exposed to STEM teaching, modules and competitions to gradually shrink. 

Stay tuned!

Bob Wallace is a technology journalist with over 30 years of experience explaining how new services, apps, consumer electronic devices and video sources are reshaping the world of communications as we know it. Wallace has specific expertise in explaining how and why advances in technology redefine the way sports fans interact with their league, teams, players and each other. He's the Founder of Fast Forward Thinking LLC.

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Unbeknownst to most, several NFL clubs are working hard off the field to advance crucial STEM education efforts for the nation's students while they strive to build a winning football team. They've been joined by players (past and present) and sponsors to expand a groundswell of activity.

Teaming the resources of pro football with ongoing STEM education programs promises a powerful combination that could raise the importance of STEM outside and far beyond the boundaries of K-12 class rooms.

That's required as STEM is about much more than just a K-12 curriculum with a first focus on Science, Technology & Mathematics. If you add Invention and Entrepreneurship to the programs, the lofty goal of undertakings becomes creating tomorrow's big-picture problem solvers and innovators today.

Team STEM

Where NFL teams such as the New England Patriots and the San Francisco 49ers, along with individual players play a role in furthering STEM is by showing kids that problem-solving can be hands-on fun. That requires creating engaging programs with tools kids need for beyond-books invention creation.

The NFL and school systems are both targeting the same audience but with different core products. The league has focused hard on reaching kids and young demographics with its video content (games and originals) while educators are working to reach kids in grades as low as kindergarten with STEM education.

Collectively, the goal is that STEM efforts help create and begin filling a pipeline of problem-solving inventors that it is hoped will make up am increasingly larger chunk of the workforce for corporate America, academia, non-profits and government.

Start Locally, Think Nationally

The New England Patriots continue to take STEM education next level by hosting field trips from Massachusetts schools whereby students take part in team-based, hands-on problem-solving challenges faced by NFL team. The exercises are called "modules" and provide the structure and resources visiting kids need to tackle efforts such as Build a Team, which includes launching an expansion franchise from scratch, working within a salary cap and budget to select players as part of the math-centric module.

The science and design-focused Build a Helmet module, as the name implies, directs young problem-solvers to separately design the inside and outside of a helmet from provided raw materials. The kids split into two groups and later test their design by dropping a croquet ball on them from above to test and evaluate their creations.

New-Wave Field Trips

"We have had tremendous support from the Kraft family and sponsors such as Raytheon in creating and expanding this beyond-the classroom STEM program here at the Hall at Patriot Place," said Hall Executive Director Bryan Morry. "The student interest in science and math modules has been run away. But we also have an important opportunity to open the eyes and minds of kids that aren't already fixed on following STEM forward by showing them the real-world applications of that combined knowledge."

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The Hall hosts more than 18,000 field trip visitors each year with most participating in on-site STEM-related programs and modules designed to connect football to science and math. The modules are designed primarily for students in grades 6-8, though the team's efforts also cover younger and older students, Morry explained.

The Patriots also bestow an annual honor to in-state educator annually. The Massachusetts STEM teacher of the Year award was created about four years ago by the Hall at Patriot Place and facility sponsor Raytheon. The winner's school receives $5,000 to be used for STEM education. The winner and four finalists will be recognized at the 2016 Massachusetts STEM Summit. The schools of the four finalists will each receive $1,000 for STEM education courtesy of Raytheon. 

Live from Silicon Valley

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The San Francisco 49ers have partnered with the Silicon Valley Education Foundation and the Santa Clara Unified School District to create what's called the 49ers STEM Leadership Institute. This six-year program is designed "to prepare students with high academic potential to be outstanding," according to its creators. It began in the summer of 2014 with 60 incoming 7th grade students.

The institute's self-stated goal is to "inspire and prepare its students to pursue STEM majors at top-tier universities and become future leaders in their fields." By the end of its rollout, there will be 360 students from grades 7-12 in the program.

The Program

The college-prep program consists of enhanced math and science courses and integrated with the program's engineering lab. The institute feature's lab will be used by participating students to carry out projects in any of the four STEM areas. It contains digital fabrication tools such as 3D printer and laser cutters, robotics kits, laptops and tablets. The lab will be supplemented with what creators say is over 300 hours of additional learning time annually - that includes things like hands-on project work, visits to local firms and labs and prep for local, state and national competitions.

To be eligible, the institute requires interested students be current sixth graders in the Santa Clara Unified School District area, have an overall GPA of 3.0 or higher, strong match and science achievement in the 6th grade and readiness for Algebra in the 7th grade. Students must be willing to commit to the six-year program. 

Grassroots Efforts

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Not everyone has the luxury of sending their kids to school in a resource-loaded innovation center like Silicon Valley. In fact, it can be easily argued that the biggest challenge for driving STEM is in underserved and lower-income areas of the country.

To try and span that divide, local, regional and state groups (mostly non-profits) have risen up to create what are called invention education program that include a STEM-focused curriculum for educators to teach kids as early as kindergarten. This breed of program culminates annually with what are called invention competitions akin to the old days of science fairs in gyms.

The competitions are typically open to fourth-graders and older and encourage team of students to solve problems they choose with inventions that they bring for judging (and peer review) at local, regional and now national conventions.

Non-profit groups across the U.S. already host invention competitions that don't require endless resources and big budgets to engage young students. You can find them in states from Connecticut to Georgia to Iowa, to Idaho and far beyond.

Player Advocates

While the government, school systems, industry entities and now NFL teams have helped resource STEM education along with invention and entrepreneurship, individual athlete advocates are joining the broadening effort to bring the movement to areas of their choosing.

Jacksonville Jaguars Offensive Lineman Kelvin Beachum Jr. has received media attention for becoming an ambassador of sorts for STEM education, when not protecting QB Blake Bortles during games. While his goal of bringing it to the masses is quite ambitious, it hasn't daunted him from getting underway.

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The third overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft decided that his philanthropy choice was to find ways off the field to encourage children interest STEM and to educate them in the countless career opportunities available to those that continue to stick with their pursuits.

The 26-year-old Texas native launched his very own STEM event called "STEM Days" in his hometown just last week. It was open to elementary, middle, and high school students who interacted with robots and other equipment not readily available to the masses.

Beachum was inspired to launch his three-day STEM event after a visit to the robotics lab at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The Jaguar would like to broaden the event beyond his town of birth. His efforts to date could move other current and former NFL players to follow suit which could generate a trend of focused community payback from professional athletes that reaches beyond driving continued interest in competitive school sports.

Post-Game

It's not novel or new for former NFL stars to talk about the importance of a solid education to students.

What is different, however, is when players focus once-general talks and advice on the area of STEM education. What's even better is when the talk is backed up by action.

That's precisely the case for 11-year NFL Veteran and Ohio State University alum William White, who has parlayed his degree in metallurgical engineering into a powerful position as the vice-president of the Midwest region Project Lead The Way (PLTW).

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The national non-profit provides STEM curriculum to over 5,000 elementary, middle and high schools. The curriculum makes up the must-have foundation for programs that teach science, technology, engineering and math (and more) in America's schools.

White played with the Detroit Lions, Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons, where he closed his career after Super Bowl XXXIII. He was development director for Ohio State's College of Engineering from 2010-2012, after which he was appointed to Project Lead the Way.

The NFL veteran also spoke at Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day at John Deere Davenport Works, Rock Island High School and was the keynote speaker at the 53rd annual banquet of the Quad-City Engineering & Science Council at John Deere World Headquarters on Thursday night, according to a local newspaper report.

The Bottom Line

With resource-rich groups taking on STEM from the top and grassroots programs coming at the challenge from below, look for the gap containing students who have but been fully exposed to STEM teaching, modules and competitions to gradually shrink. 

Stay tuned!

Bob Wallace is a technology journalist with over 30 years of experience explaining how new services, apps, consumer electronic devices and video sources are reshaping the world of communications as we know it. Wallace has specific expertise in explaining how and why advances in technology redefine the way sports fans interact with their league, teams, players and each other. He's the Founder of Fast Forward Thinking LLC.

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