An emergency has occurred at the 49ers football museum in Santa Clara: the stand holding the famous football from “The Catch” has broken, and a classroom of 3rd-graders must build a replacement.
Using drinking straws, scissors and tape, the students are tasked with building a device strong enough to hold a 14-ounce, 22-inch football without collapsing.
“It’s a design problem, but it’s also a way to learn about engineering, math and teamwork,” said George Garcia, math and science instructional coach at Santa Clara Unified. “It’s a great way for kids to see real-world applications for what they’re already learning in the classroom. … My kids loved it.”
The lesson is part of the 49ers Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math Education program, a free academic offering for K-8 teachers and their students that includes math and science lessons, teacher training and a field trip for students to the 49ers stadium and museum in Santa Clara. For schools within 75 miles of the stadium, the program also includes free transportation.
The 49ers aren’t the only professional sports team in California that’s dedicated to science and math education. The Oakland Athletics, San Diego Padres, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and Golden State Warriors also have math and science programs, using their respective sports as a way to enhance academics for their young fans.
The 49ers Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the football team, has been offering the STEAM program since 2014, and has served more than 200,000 students, mostly from low-income schools in the Bay Area. About 300 to 350 students a day visit the stadium as part of the program.
“Sports is a great way to teach STEAM. It’s something kids can relate to immediately, whether they’re fans or not, and it can really open their eyes to math and science,” said Jesse Lovejoy, a former teacher and director of the 49ers’ STEAM program and museum. “We take football and use it as a platform to engage students academically.”
In the 49ers program, the lessons are taught by teachers who work for the 49ers, although regular teachers are encouraged to use the curriculum in their own classrooms. Students learn about football-related topics such as force and impact, how objects move in flight, and yardage and statistics. But they also learn about the stadium itself — how water is recycled from the field irrigation system, how solar panels and the rooftop garden help conserve energy, the benefits of recycling all those plastic cups on game days and how the stadium was constructed.
Weather and climate are also part of the lessons: how the ball moves differently in the rain or cold, how players prepare for weather extremes and how humans impact their environment generally. What the players eat to stay in optimal health, how they maintain energy and stay in shape are also part of the curriculum.
The 49ers moved in 2014 from their longtime home in San Francisco to a new stadium in Santa Clara, 50 miles south and in the heart of Silicon Valley. But that’s not what prompted the team to embrace science and math education, Lovejoy said.
“It doesn’t matter where in the United States you are, STEAM is an educational priority,” he said. “We would have done this if we were in Cleveland.”
The owners of the 49ers, the York family, have long been interested in education, he said. Chief executive Jed York’s wife, Danielle, is a former teacher in San Francisco Unified, and education is a favorite charitable pursuit of Jed York’s mother, Denise York.
The 49ers also run a STEM leadership institute, an intensive math and science program for 240 middle and high school students in Santa Clara.
The STEAM program emphasizes hands-on projects, such as outdoor relay races to study energy transference and projects where students build their own stadiums out of Styrofoam, wooden blocks and cardboard, or design face masks with straws. The football stand project was intended for teachers to bring back to their students in the classroom (the actual football caught by wide receiver Dwight Clark in the legendary end zone catch in 1982 is safely enshrined in the museum, and the stand is intact).
The 49ers educational efforts are appreciated by local educators, who say the lessons are helpful with implementing new math and science standards that focus on hands-on learning, critical thinking and real-world applications of abstract concepts.
“In education, we can’t do it alone. We need these big community entities, like sports teams, to help us educate our children,” said Kathie Kanavel, assistant superintendent at Santa Clara Unified. “I think it’s important that teams like the 49ers, who make a zillion dollars on sports, see that they can have a role in uplifting children in our community.”
It’s not only football teams who are heavily involved in STEM education. The Anaheim Ducks hockey team, for example, invites more than 16,000 3rd-through-6th-graders a year for a 1-day field trip to the hockey arena to learn the science behind hockey — taught by actual hockey players.
Last year, players Ryan Kesler and Kevin Bieska demonstrated thermodynamics and heat transfer by pouring cream onto a slab of marble placed atop dry ice. The cream turned to ice cream, much like water turns to ice when sprayed over concrete to create the Ducks’ playing surface.
This year’s lesson will be about energy. Players will use the slapshot — a powerful swing at the puck — to demonstrate how energy moves from the player to the stick to the puck to the net, or ricochets off the glass. The Ducks send participating teachers a workbook a month in advance so students can prepare for the day.
“We want the lessons behind hockey to be relevant and valuable,” said the Duck’s marketing and development manager, Jason Cooper, a former teacher. “People have meaningful connections to sports teams, and this is a way sports teams can really have an impact. It’s an additional voice to support the educational community, to amplify what students are already learning.”
The team’s other educational endeavors include school supply giveaways, fitness and reading programs and street hockey gear for local schools.
“The long-term vision is for these students to have a positive association with hockey and the Ducks,” Cooper said. “But it’s also about investing in the community. We feel it’s our obligation to do that.”
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