An Unconventional Approach: NFL team uses football to inspire STEM learning

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The San Francisco 49ers are taking science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education to new heights for children throughout Silicon Valley.

We leveraged the powerful appeal of sports, as well as our location in the heart of the world’s tech capital, to motivate young people and enrich our community with STEM education platforms. At the outset, we asked ourselves how we could help make STEM more meaningful, relevant, and approachable to young students. We found that the best approach was to create a STEM learning platform that was unconventional in its pedagogy, atmosphere, programming, and reach. Our programs engage the full range of learning domains: physical, affective, and intellectual.

An Unconventional Atmosphere

The 49ers STEM Education Program, which opened in conjunction with Levi’s Stadium in 2014, provides K–8 learning platforms that teach content-rich lessons in the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Housed in the Denise DeBartolo York Education Center inside the 49ers Museum presented by Sony, the program is committed to education and innovation that inspires students by repurposing football and the stadium as vehicles for learning.

Our field trips give sixty thousand students each year the opportunity to learn about STEM outside the classroom. The program—a four-part field trip experience that includes museum exploration, a Levi’s Stadium tour, a movement lab, and a classroom STEM lesson—employs our stadium as a 1.85 million-square-foot learning lab that children can examine as a true articulation of what in-class STEM principles look like in real life. With the 49ers STEM Education Program, students have the opportunity to learn about rigorous subjects in a fresh, exciting setting. Getting kids to think about these subjects as they’re standing in an NFL locker room or on the field makes all the difference, re-injecting them into their schools, communities, after-school programs, and families with a new thirst and frame of reference for STEM knowledge.

Math, science, and technology are everywhere in sports. The diverse learning environment that accompanies the 49ers STEM education experience allows students to start thinking about STEM in a different light, including how it applies to them—perhaps more than they previously thought. 

Unconventional Programming

As the leading professional sports organization in the support of STEM learning concepts for youth, the 49ers have devised a multi-pronged approach to connecting with kids. In addition to the 49ers STEM Education Program on-site, we also have strong presence in our home community of Santa Clara.

The team’s efforts additionally include the49ers Girls.png 49ers STEM Leadership Institute’s Chevron STEMZONE at Cabrillo Middle School in Santa Clara. The school’s six-year curriculum begins in seventh grade and continues through high school, seeking to prepare students with high academic potential to be outstanding in STEM subjects. The 49ers STEM Leadership Institute (SLI)—launched in 2014 as a partnership between the 49ers, Chevron, the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, and the Santa Clara Unified School District—provides students with more than 330 additional hours of instruction at no cost. Currently hosting two cohorts of scholars totaling 120 students in the seventh and eighth grades, the program will expand to Santa Clara High School (SCHS) this fall. When the Fab Lab at SCHS opens, it will provide state-of-the-art equipment for SLI students and will also be open to the greater community of STEM entrepreneurs.

Our approach to STEM programming for Bay Area youth is diverse and ever-evolving.

Just last month, the team launched its Football and STEM Academy Summer Camp Program to extend the organization’s impact on youth education about football and STEM concepts. The three-day camp, which was a beta test for a larger summer program in 2017, hosted more than 80 local students from grades 3-8 and centered on the science of sports, fusing football skills and STEM learning. Each day, the campwhich was jointly created by the 49ers STEM Education Program and the 49ers Youth Football Programbegan with education lessons rooted in STEM, translating to the kids’ efforts on the 49ers practice field later in the day. Lessons included, but were not limited to, football force and movement, innovation in football equipment, strength and training, and flexibility and speed drills.

Unconventional in Reach

Before launching the 49ers STEM Education Program at Levi’s Stadium in 2014, we knew that we wanted to spur a wide range of Bay Area students to harness skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This range of students was representative of our program’s reach in the Bay Area—we’ve had schools visit from as far as Reno—and was also geared toward various K–8 development levels and learning audiences.

To ensure that students of all backgrounds and learning levels are able to experience the program, 50 percent of students that participate in the 49ers STEM Education Program come from Title I schools. In addition, we have hosted schools like the California School for the Blind and the Stellar Academy for Dyslexics for field trips, meeting every student’s needs when they visit us. Our diverse platform—from our classroom atmosphere to our program curriculum to our overall reach—helps us make STEM more meaningful and relevant to kids at all age levels.49ers Lesson.png

I’m most proud of the fact that we’ve been able to offer the 49ers STEM Education Program experience to more than ninety thousand students at no cost to the kids or their schools, effectively covering transportation, admission, and supplies. This is absolutely crucial to our success; without our subsidization of transportation and program costs, the barrier to entry for those who need it most would be far too high, effectively removing them from the experience and the chance to embrace STEM at a deeper level.

We hope others will join with us in our efforts to engage K–8 scholars in the Silicon Valley. We welcome discussions, program observations, and other ways we can work with other organizations to explore how they can help young people succeed in education and in life. And we invite you to connect with us!

Jesse Lovejoy is the Director of STEM Education and the 49ers Museum.

Editor's note: This is part of a series of blog posts that is collaboratively published every week by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and National Association for Gifted Children. Each post in the series exists both here on the NAGC Blog and Fordham's Flypaper.