WASHINGTON – White House officials today sought advice from Davidson math Professor Tim Chartier and representatives from two national mathematics organizations on how to use government data sets to encourage students into STEM studies and, in turn, use those students' work to solve problems in society.
Administration officials, including the current head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, invited Chartier, a pioneer in sports analytics with his Cats Stats program, to talk about how plentiful government data sets, from food and drug recalls to on-time performance by airlines, can prompt the curiosity that attracts students to STEM subjects.
Chartier has drawn national attention–he met with a USA Today reporter before going to the White House–since his March Mathness bracketology work began several years ago. That project helps sports fans use data to fill out more accurate NCAA men's basketball tournament brackets, and he highlighted that connection during today's meeting.
"Sports is a place where people find data that they can understand and get engaged in," Chartier said, standing outside the White House gates, a few blocks from where the Wildcats men's basketball team will play in the A-10 tournament tomorrow. "It gives meaning to what they are learning. That was a springboard for how we can motivate learning with these [government] data sets. It's the kind of thing we do in Cats Stats that connects to initiatives that could be done nationally with public data sets."
Karen Saxe, of the American Mathematical Society (AMS), was part of the math delegation with Chartier and described how he pivoted from Cats Stats, which delves into a fun and exciting topic but doesn't address a crisis in daily life, to his analytics work aimed at reducing football head injuries.
"That is a societal problem," said Saxe, a Macalester College math professor who heads the AMS Washington office. "We can take it to thinking about injuries sustained in wars or natural disaster."
Michael Pearson, executive director of the Mathematical Association of America and another participant in the meeting, described Chartier as an exemplar of how many in the math community are working on the frontiers of the discipline to tackle current problems in the nation and world.
"People often see mathematics based on their experience in high school algebra as something that is disconnected from their day-to-day experiences," Pearson said, "and this is an example of how, no, mathematics is in fact embedded in the world we are part of and can help us understand that world."
The White House advisers who invited Chartier included Michael Kratsios, deputy assistant to the President and deputy U.S. chief technology officer, who heads the science and technology policy office until a director is appointed.
Chartier's wife, Tanya, a K-12 educator who has collaborated in outreach through data analytics, joined the meeting to talk about empowering younger students and helping them understand that "mathematics is not a limited field."