John Urschel, The Big Book of Tell Me Why, and the Making Of A Football Star Turned Math Evangelist

“It started with The Big Book of Tell Me Why,” he tells me over Zoom during the pandemic fall. John Urschel, a former guard for the Baltimore Ravens, is about to complete his Ph.D. in mathematics at MIT. He’s also a Trustee at the National Museum of Mathematics (MoMath), the only math museum in North America. Math and football, he says, are two things he likes and is really good at. Not a lot of people can say the same, and I wanted to understand more about this intriguing combination in a person now passionate not just about math and football but also about bringing more young people of color along on the journey to solve big questions with math. He has made that his life mission.

Research shows that a student’s success in early math skills is a predictor of success later in life and is associated with a greater likelihood to graduate from high school. Students who learn math early and well are set up for success not just in school but in the workforce. Math has become even more crucial in the past few decades, as more and more jobs require math- and STEM-related skills; those jobs also pay better and offer more opportunities for upward mobility.

John’s math story began when he was 7 or 8: “My mom was an attorney,” he explained. “When I was too little to be left home by myself, I would stay for after-school activities, and my mom would pick me up and she would take me to night court with her. She had a book – The Big Book of Tell Me Why — and I read it every night.” Here he goes to the bookshelf and gets it. The zoom square fills with its image: It’s dog-eared and has a shoe print on it, “from being in the trunk,” he explains. “‘Who invented sign language? How does an octopus move? What is an asteroid? Could there be a collision of the planets?’ I am in my own little world, immersed in the book.”

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