John Drazan worked with area schoolchildren to collect data.

Every year, the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference Research Paper Competition brings exciting and innovative insight and changes to how we analyze sports. This year, an interdisciplinary team from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute comprised of graduate students from the School of Engineering and the School of Science, along with a professor from the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, scored a slam dunk by winning the $10,000 first-place prize at the competition. The team was recognized for the Best Paper Presentation for their paper, From Sports to Science: Using Basketball Analytics to Broaden the Appeal of Math and Science Among Youth.

The Rensselaer team led by John Drazan, a Ph.D student in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, includes Ben Horne, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Computer Science; Biomedical Engineering Ph.D. student Amy Loya; and Ron Eglash, professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies. In the winning paper, the team used a software application created by Horne that would allow students to create their own heat maps, which are graphical representations of data. The work was done in collaboration with 4th Family Inc., an Albany-based grassroots nonprofit. The team won $10,000 and a trip to Las Vegas to present the work to the National Basketball Association (NBA) during the NBA Summer League.

The competition represents the largest forum for groundbreaking research in sports. According to MIT Sloan, the Research Paper Competition is an incredible opportunity to reach a diverse audience while still contributing to the advancement of analytics in sports. This year, out of over 200 publications that were submitted, eight were selected as oral presentations for the conference and one winner was chosen by a panel of experts.

“I wasn’t really into science when I was growing up because I didn’t think that it applied to anything I cared about,” said Drazan. “It wasn’t until a teacher showed me the connections between physics and basketball that I finally started thinking about STEM as a career option.” Through the years, the lesson stuck with Drazan, and in 2014, when a graduate fellowship with Eglash on community-based STEM education came up, he jumped on the opportunity.

Over the years, rising concern about America’s ability to maintain its competitive position in the global economy has renewed interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. The challenge, according to Eglash, is that underrepresented students are often disinterested in STEM academics because they do not see its relevance to their own lives and communities.

To provide a solution, in June 2010, Eglash received a five-year, $2.9 million National Science Foundation (NSF) research grant to support the development of “The Triple Helix” project dedicated to producing “civic scientists.” The grant funded 16 graduate fellows from Rensselaer. The fellows focused on STEM research projects related to community-based issues that linked STEM education to culture, health, the environment, poverty, crime, and information access both within the Capital Region as well as other communities, including a field site in West Africa.

The research reported in the MIT-Sloan best paper began when Drazan and Horne were graduate fellows in Eglash’s Triple Helix project. Horne created an open-source program that accepts athlete data and produces personalized heat maps, while Loya and Drazan ran a series of free shooting clinics in collaboration with local coaches during which youth players collected and analyzed their own shooting data.

“We basically turned the basketball courts into DIY sports science labs, with home-brewed pressure plates and photogates,” Drazan said, who has also served as the STEM Director for 4th Family Inc since 2012. “Contested mid-range shots are very ineffective compared to closer two-point shots and three-pointers because mid-range shots are difficult, but they only result in two points. I realized that the best way to communicate this information to the athletes was to have them collect their own data and have them analyze it and draw their own conclusions.”

Horne’s work utilizes machine learning, natural language processing, and network science techniques to discover improved methods to both recommend and detect high-quality information. His love for sports and the growing importance of STEM education has led him to use his computational skills in the field of sports analytics. “While the idea of students collecting their own data is a simple idea, it is an authentic connection to improving a key part of their self-identity,” Horne said. “This connection and framing makes a world of difference in the students’ acceptance of STEM topics. With the rising importance of STEM education in the job market, this has become an extremely salient research area, and we are excited for the recognition of this by the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.”

Then they built two-way bridges: how can STEM help kids achieve their athletic aspirations, and what innovations can we create as scientists and engineers to support that? It’s what we call generative STEM—cycling the value that the community generates back to the community, so that STEM advancement is linked directly to community development.”—Ron Eglash

Loya’s research focuses on proteomic and mechanical characterization of stretch activation, a fundamental property of cardiac muscles. Loya noted that Eric Ledet, associate professor and laboratory director of the Musculoskeletal Mechanics Laboratory in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, connected her to Drazan before her first year at Rensselaer since they had shared experiences as college basketball players and a passion for STEM outreach. “After working with John at some of his after-school programs, I joined him at 4th Family Inc. as the assistant STEM director. I was drawn to the nonprofit’s unconventional approach to STEM education, which tapped into students’ interest in sports before incorporating classroom concepts.”

“Within our team, we have four individuals from very different backgrounds, who were brought together by using basketball as a common ground,” Loya said. “At last year’s conference, Sue Bird, WNBA, Seattle Storm, spoke about the disparity in analytics between the NBA and the WNBA. She explained how sports statistics helps devise strategy and support decision-making, but that data needs context so there have to be people who can tell you how to use it. As a female basketball player, it is especially meaningful to me that we have begun to address this gap by introducing the concept of shooting analytics to high school girls, in addition to the boys. I’ve been fortunate enough to merge my passion for basketball and STEM by showing players how analytics can improve their performance, while enabling them to experience scientific inquiry within a venue at which they are intrinsically motivated to improve.”

“Rather than gee-whiz gimmicks like catapults for physics or cute robots, the team started with authentic values—the black community’s deep cultural history in sports; the passion these kids (of many backgrounds) have for basketball; and working with neighborhood organizations like 4th Family,” said Eglash. “Then they built two-way bridges: how can STEM help kids achieve their athletic aspirations, and what innovations can we create as scientists and engineers to support that? It’s what we call generative STEM—cycling the value that the community generates back to the community, so that STEM advancement is linked directly to community development.”