Posted: May 19, 2000
Rita Johnson could hardly have guessed her master's degree would lead to an in-depth understanding of NBA policies, box scores and marketing.
Five years ago Johnson simply needed a thesis topic and she needed one fast. Inspiration came from her middle school-aged son and his friends.
"I was impressed that they could all talk about statistics in the context of basketball games and players, but not in other contexts," says Johnson, who taught middle school math for 12 years and is now a CSUS professor of teacher education.
So she went to work on her idea.
The result was SportsMath, a detailed math curriculum for middle school students that uses basketball box scores to teach all types of math lessons. Using current free throw, playing time and other statistics, students learn about percentages, averages, probability, graphing, word problems and much more.
"The whole idea was to have something in addition to the regular curriculum," Johnson says. "I designed this especially for students who don't really have their hearts in school, though it is also good reinforcement and practice for all students."
Now Johnson has a growing hit on her hands.
Since being sponsored by the Sacramento Kings, Hewlett-Packard and Intel in 1996 and 1997, the program has gone national. Four teams picked it up this year - the Dallas Mavericks, the Golden State Warriors, the Los Angeles Lakers and the New York Knicks.
More than 350 teachers in those teams' regions now use the curriculum. Johnson has an agent out scouring the country for other teams and sponsors to help bring the program to more cities. There's also a website - www.sportsmath.com - where students can find links to the team box scores they need for their assignments.
This summer a condensed version of the program will be taught at CSUS Academic Talent Search, a program that offers courses to 1,400 middle school students each summer. They'll use box scores from the Sacramento Monarchs.
It's all going along much smoother than the first year, when Johnson learned the hard way that team and player names are closely guarded commercial assets, and even educators have to go through a lengthy process to get approval to use them. Turning that master's thesis into a real-life venture took plenty of negotiation.
Now, SportsMath is an annual part of Johnson's life.
Every year she prepares new lesson plan workbooks based on the players and teams to be included. She says a full-fledged book is out of the question, because one couldn't be printed in time to include lessons on players for the current season.
"It has to be current, or it just won't work," Johnson says. "Players from past seasons just don't matter to the students, unless he's a certain retired player from Chicago."
In coming years, Johnson hopes to add additional basketball teams to her program. She also plans to develop similar programs tied to professional baseball and football statistics.
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