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Professor’s podcast dives deep with NFL player-turned-mathematician

Dr. Anna Stokke stands in front of brick wall

Dr. Anna Stokke

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: so, a UWinnipeg math professor and a former National Football League player-turned-mathematician sit down to record a podcast…

In a recent episode of Shifting Conversations: Dialogue and Change in Higher Education, a podcast series by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education’s (STLHE) 2021 cohort of the 3M National Teaching Fellows, The University of Winnipeg’s Dr. Anna Stokke chatted with John Urschel, a former NFL lineman who played 40 games with the Baltimore Ravens before retiring from professional football, to discuss parallels between learning math and football, math teaching, similarities between coaching and teaching, and his journey from the NFL to graduate studies.

I don’t know of any other person who both played in the NFL and got a PhD in math, and it’s remarkable [John] could do this.

Dr. Anna Stokke

“John is a fascinating person!” Stokke said. “I don’t know of any other person who both played in the NFL and got a PhD in math, and it’s remarkable he could do this. I also find it interesting that he ultimately chose math over football. He could have continued as an NFL player but chose to focus on a career as a mathematician. I can’t relate to the football piece, but I can relate to his love of math and finding math beautiful.”

The Winnipeg-born Urschel was an academic standout throughout his NCAA football career, winning the William V. Campbell Trophy for scholastic achievement, earning both an undergraduate and master’s degree in mathematics. In the midst of his professional football career, Urschel began the pursuit of his Ph.D. in mathematics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), his research focusing on graph theory, numerical analysis, and machine learning. He completed his Ph.D. in 2021, and Urschel is currently a member of the Institute for Advanced Study and will join Harvard University as a Junior Fellow in fall.

In addition to his journey – documented in Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football, which he co-authored with Louisa Thomas, his wife – Urschel and Stokke spoke about teaching and his involvement in math outreach programs, subjects close to Stokke’s heart. In 2021, Stokke received a STLHE 3M National Teaching Fellowship and UWinnipeg’s Clifford J. Robson Memorial Award for Teaching Excellence. Stokke is also the co-founder of advocacy group WISE Math and is President and co-founder of the non-profit organization, Archimedes Math Schools.

As part of the Shifting Conversations podcast series, Stokke had the opportunity to sit down with Athabasca University chemistry professor Dr. Dietmar Kennepohl and Northern Alberta Institute of Technology mathematics and computer science instructor Mark Schneider. Stokke, Kennepohl, and Schnieder discussed STEM literacy and barriers that stand in the way, strategies to relieving STEM anxiety, the evolution of STEM teaching, best methods for teaching math and science, and how stereotypes impact success in STEM subjects.

The wide-ranging conversation addresses not just higher education but math and science education in the K-12 system while weaving in insight into the ways in which success can be and is impacted by cultural attitudes.

“(Mark and Dietmar) had a lot of interesting things to say about teaching STEM subjects and that episode will be of interest to anyone who teaches in a STEM field – and even to parents,” Stokke said. “Our 2021 group of 3M National Teaching Fellows is a diverse group with diverse interests, so our podcast series covers quite a broad range of topics.”

For more information on Shifting Conversations, and to listen to Stokke’s conversations with Urschel and Kennepohl and Schneider, visit the podcast’s page or search for Shifting Conversations on Spotify.

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