Honors College, Brewers smooth STEM education

January 13, 2022 / by / 0 Comment
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Milwaukee Brewers personnel teach eighth grade students how to properly drag an infield at Wednesday’s STEM event.

By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

It’s a little after 10 o’clock on an increasingly comfortable Wednesday morning, and 54 west Phoenix eighth graders are clearly uncomfortable with the idea of learning more about baseball.

Students take turns throwing a ball and having their pitch measured …

Given the opportunity to throw a ball off a mound at the Milwaukee Brewers’ spring training facility in Maryvale, they scatter in the other direction before one girl grudgingly agrees to try it – and shows off some pretty good form that entices the others to overcome their shyness.

The ice is broken a little bit when groundskeepers demonstrate how to drag the infield and instruct the students to properly pull the metal mats across the dirt. It’s only a tiny thaw, though. “That was so hard,” one girl tells her classmate as they walk to the next station.

But then there’s laughter emanating from the indoor batting cages, where the students take turns whacking a baseball off a tee. They get even louder when one of their teachers shows what she can do.

And before you know it, the students are intrigued by a day designed to show them the relationship between baseball and STEM and teach them that there are jobs in sports beyond being an athlete.  

… And then view the results on the nearby computer screen. (Photo by Gabby Marrama, Honors College Program Manager for Marketing and Communications)

Better yet, their 10 Grand Canyon University chaperones and mentors – all students from the Honors College – are intrigued as well. Senior Jordan Stephens had never been to the Brewers’ immaculate facility for even a spring training game, so seeing what it’s like behind the scenes was fascinating.

“Just as it’s exciting for the kids to do it, it’s exciting for us, too,” she said. “I’m a sports management major, and this is cool to see, just some of the management side of what they’re doing here and how they involve the community and the kids.

“At the beginning of the day, the kids just wanted to talk to each other. But by the end of the day, they’re having fun.”

The STEM part of the experience involved the technology that has become commonplace in baseball. The velocity and curve of each pitch, the geometry of the infield and the exit velocity and launch angle of each hit were a key part of the lesson as students studied their form on the computer screens.

Dr. Breanna Naegeli, Associate Dean of the Honors College, addresses the students upon their arrival.

“Often when you think of baseball, you think of the sport, what it means to be a fan, your favorite players. But when you really look at how much science and STEM-based concepts are fully integrated into baseball, it can make the topic a lot more enjoyable,” said Dr. Breanna Naegeli, Associate Dean of the Honors College.

“The goal between the Milwaukee Brewers and our Honors students is to really inspire and inform students of all the different ways STEM is applied here in our everyday life, in our world and in things we are really passionate about and inspire them to continue to dive into STEM-related concepts and see the different career options that can exist through that.”

The first step is simply to show them that a Major League Baseball team conducts spring training not far from where they live.

One of their teachers, Sarah Bredar, was stunned by the response when she asked her students from Justine Spitalny Elementary School if they even knew about the Brewers’ facility near 51st Avenue and Indian School Road. The club completed a $60 million renovation of the site three years ago and has installed a new party deck in right field for this spring.

The students got to hit a ball off a tee and could see their pitch measured on the screen behind them. (Photo by Gabby Marrama)

Only one or two of the 26 students knew it was there. And they knew even less about the possibility of having a career in sports.

“It was really refreshing to see, from a teacher’s perspective, that there are pathways to something they love and they can make a career out of – but they didn’t think it was possible,” Bredar said.

This will take time. But the Brewers, through their partnership with GCU, are determined to keep trying – they continue to host a Learning Lounge in the facility, and Wednesday’s event was a logical next step from the eight-week Brewers STEM Crew program they conducted before the pandemic.

“I think that the more we do little things like this, it helps to create that level of interest, whatever it may be,” said Thad McGrew, Community Affairs Director for the Maryvale site. “It can be small, it can be middling or it can be a high interest level. But it’s a byproduct of being able to bring them out and being able to expose them to things that they may not have seen and had an opportunity to experience before.”

Thad McGrew, Community Affairs Director for the Brewers’ Maryvale complex, is eager to educate local students in the relationship between baseball and STEM.

McGrew used his teaching experience to command the students’ attention when they arrived, instructing them to clap twice every time he said, “Eyes!”

“We want to get you guys familiar with who we are, what we do and hopefully get you out to a game,” he told them, the stadium’s main field looming behind him. “This is where sports and academics come together. I know this is a new experience for you, but, trust me, after today you’ll be more of a fan and know more.”

The students were treated to lunch afterward in the main stadium area. Talk about a nice place to eat – and learn.

“We’ve been making the transition to incorporating more STEM into their everyday academics, and the hands-on learning, they’ve really leaned into,” Bredar said. “It’s been a little difficult with COVID mitigation measures to be able to do it fully, so having an opportunity like this, to be in the open air, to walk around with professionals in athletics and to see different fields that they can apply to the concepts we’re learning, in real time, is huge for our kids.

“It’s really helpful for them to know that there are opportunities they didn’t even know they had.”

A student is shown how to precisely paint the foul line. (Photo by Gabby Marrama)

Same goes for the Honors College students.

“Sometimes you don’t know what’s out there,” Stephens said. “I didn’t really know what to expect. I was in a similar program in my middle school – I did the STEM program. It reminds me of what I was like at that age. I don’t think I was that shy, but they’ve definitely come out of their shells a little bit.”

The sounds of laughter and “Ohhhh!” reverberated behind her as students took turns throwing the ball. Clearly, this was a home run for both the Brewers and GCU.

“The partnership is still growing,” McGrew said. “The more we look at ways of leveraging our relationship, the more programs we will have an opportunity to do together. But I think that, just in principle, the relationship is one that’s very positive for both sides.”

Staff writer Ashlee Larrison contributed to this story.

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].

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Related content:

GCU Today: Honors College, Brewers knock STEM out of the park

GCU Today: New GCU-Brewers team is swinging for the fences

GCU Today: Brewers Learning Lounge celebrates opening day

GCU Today: GCU partnership with Brewers is in full swing


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