Kelvin Beachum, the newly-signed tackle for the New York Jets, is on a mission. And it has nothing to do with bouncing back from a sluggish season after suffering a serious knee injury.
Instead, Beachum wants to find a way to tap into the millions of football fans that the NFL has cultivated and use its visibility, access and reach to tout the importance of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.
"How do we take the NFL and leverage all the access they have – its millions of different fans out there," he asked Friday at U.S. News STEM Solution conference in San Diego, California. "How do we engage the NFL on a deeper level than just, 'Hey, let's engage the fans?'"
The Texas-native graduated from Southern Methodist University in 2010 with a bachelor's degree in economics and a minor in sports management. The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted him in 2012, where he played starting left tackle until an injury sidelined him in 2015. In 2016, he signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars during free agency, and most recently, he signed on to play for the New York Jets.
When he's not training and playing, Beachum spends time in classrooms and schools, helping children, especially minority and disadvantaged youth, develop a passion for STEM disciplines and STEM careers, focusing mainly on robotics, mechanical engineering, computer programming, coding and aviation.
"I say this all the time and it's a message I hold to be true," he said. "Everybody can't go pro in football, but everybody can go pro in STEM."
The idea to use sports to engage students in STEM fields isn't new, but it's catapulted in recent years, especially as the gap has widened between those with access and exposure to STEM and those without. The goal is simple: Take something that young people can relate to and feel passionate about, like football, or sports in general, and use it to get them thinking about and excited about STEM.
When it comes to football, Beachum said, there are environmental majors who take care of the field and finance majors who work on athletes' contracts.
"There are a number of different opportunities for our young people to get involved," he said.
To be sure, Beachum isn't alone in his effort, even within the NFL. A growing number of teams, including the San Francisco 49ers, have launched various STEM initiatives.
One of the biggest challenges, explained Jesse Lovejoy, director of STEAM Education & the San Francisco 49ers Museum, is figuring out how to pique the interest of students and hook them while they're still young enough to amass a significant enough STEM foundation to be able to pursue it as a career.
"When I was a kid," he said, "I had a fixed mindset of 'I'm not good at math.' That's a stigma I had boxed myself into."
Lovejoy could calculate earned run averages, runs batted in and a whole host of other baseball statistics, "But nobody told me that was math," he said.
"We have to light that fire, and the way to do it is by doing things like we're doing – taking something like sports and saying, 'This is your access point.'"
Today, Lovejoy helps run a free STEM education program for students in grades K-8, which has so far reached 100,000 students.
That's also what Ricardo Valerdi, founder and chief scientist at Science of Sport and engineering professor at the University of Arizona is doing – teaching children about biomechanics, physiology, speed, acceleration, launch angles and more.
Valerdi partners with the Arizona Diamondbacks, San Diego Padres, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Colorado Rockies, Washington Nationals, Houston Astros, Atlanta Braves and others to host children at the Major League Baseball stadiums to help them make the connection between sports and STEM.
"They think they're going to a baseball camp," said Valerdi. "They're really going to a STEM camp."