Season 6 - Episode 611
Sports analytics as a tool to inspire the next generation of data and statistical scientists—that’s the idea behind a new project, led by Baylor and funded by the National Science Foundation. Rod Sturdivant, associate professor of statistical science and director of Baylor’s Statistical Consulting Center, is a co-principal investigator on the million-dollar project. In this Baylor Connections, Sturdivant shares how students will interact with sports-driven content and examines partnerships with 70 sports teams and five universities to train up a new generation of data and statistical scientists.
Derek Smith:Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith, and today we are talking statistics, data science and sports analytics with Dr. Rod Sturdivant. Dr. Sturdivant serves as associate professor of statistical science and director of the Statistical Consulting Center at Baylor. A retired US Army Colonel. He joined the Baylor faculty in 2020. His award-winning statistical science research has served a variety of disciplines including health, disease, sports, analytics, and more. Last year, the National Science Foundation awarded Sturdivant and a team of educators from five universities with a $1.1 million grant to utilize sports analytics to prepare the next generation of data scientists. Well, lots going on in that grant and in your world here at Baylor. Dr. Sturdivant, really appreciate you taking the time to visit with us today.
Rod Sturidvant:Thanks so much.
Derek Smith:Well looking forward to diving in. And interesting question, I think with you, with all the different areas your work touches, is if someone were to ask you what do you do, how would you respond to that?
Rod Sturidvant:Yeah, it's an interesting question. So statistics in general is developing methods, techniques and applying them to analyze data to help decision makers. And so, I think that's probably how I would summarize what I do. And I'm very much on the applied end these days of that world. So I'm literally working with real data sets, trying to tease out of them insights that will help people to make decisions.
Derek Smith:And you do it in a number of different industries. Now, I think with your work you could be exposed to basically every conceivable industry or discipline out there. For you, how true has that been in your own work?
Rod Sturidvant:Yeah, it's been tremendously true, particularly because as you mentioned, I'm the director of statistical consulting here. I did the same thing at West Point for about 10 years. I founded a consulting center, and I think at West Point I dealt with every department on campus, there were 13 except for law. Since I've been at Baylor, I've added law to that. I've actually had some interactions with the law school asking for some help with some data analysis. So yes, it crosses every discipline. I think in my career, health professions have been probably the one that has been most prevalent. I'm a biostatistician by training, so that's sort of my natural bent, but that's also been where a lot of the researchers have come from.
Derek Smith:You mentioned a natural bent. Are you naturally curious about different industries and organizations?
Rod Sturidvant:Absolutely. It's one of the things I really like about being a statistician, is I think there's something to be said for diving very deep into one area and getting very, very expert on that. But I really like new problems and learning new things. And so, each time somebody comes to me with a problem, it's just very interesting to hear about their own research in that area. And of course, I don't become an expert in that area, but at least I get to sort of dabble a little bit.
Derek Smith:Definitely at least a little bit about a lot and probably a lot about a lot, [inaudible] you really dive into it. You mentioned director of the Statistical Consulting Center at Baylor. How long has that been around and what do you do there?
Rod Sturidvant:It's been around before my time, but I was hired with a specific goal of filling the role of directing and sort of raising the visibility of that consulting group. I think statisticians by nature we're sort of collaborative, and so our faculty have been doing this for a while, but we formalized it in... So I've been here a little less than three years and it's grown substantially. Last semester we had 40 to 50 clients that we worked with, mostly at Baylor. That's sort of our focus is to try to elevate Baylor research, but we've had some external clients as well.
Derek Smith:How do you help researchers at Baylor, other organizations? What's just a couple of examples. Because, I'm sure you could give plenty.
Rod Sturidvant:Yeah, there's a lot. It could really run the gamut from somebody comes in and they're analyzing data and they just have a question, to a full-blown data analysis project where we're actually analyzing the data for them and trying to provide them with insights. And there's just been quite a spectrum since I've been here, of projects.
Derek Smith:We are visiting with Dr. Rod Sturdivant. And Rod, before we talk more about your workload, let's get to know you better just a little bit. So I mentioned a retired US Army Colonel, you've spent time at West Point. What did your career with the military look like? And then eventually what led you from there to here?
Rod Sturidvant:Yeah, I was very blessed in my career, I think, and particularly the end of my career. I was what's known as an academy professor at West Point, which is sort of like, we like to say military tenure at the academy where you are senior leadership for the academy, and probably the last third of my career, I played that role. And so, naturally I was in academia even though I was in the military. And so, that provided a transition into academia as I retired, I went to Ohio State and then found my way to Baylor two years ago.
Derek Smith:Were statistics always something that was interesting to you?
Rod Sturidvant:Absolutely. It's interesting, actually, I'm kind of an odd bird because as an undergraduate I did not major in anything math, science or engineering related. And it was because I had a very weak math background in high school. So I was discouraged from doing so, but I love math and I love numbers and was always very, very good at that. And so fortunately, they sent me to get a master's degree to go teach at West Point in math, even though I had not been a major. And here I am.
Derek Smith:That's great. Were most of your years in the military there at West Point?
Rod Sturidvant:Probably a little bit over a third of my career, it was spent at West Point.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Rod Sturdivant and you wanted to teach, West Point's a great place to be, but you came to Ohio State and then Baylor, what was it that brought you here?
Rod Sturidvant:Yeah, so after Ohio State, we also went to Azusa Pacific university in California. And then we decided we needed to get to where we would eventually want to retire, which we had sort of targeted a few cities. One of them was San Antonio. We moved to San Antonio in 2019. And we had just moved. We were still unpacking boxes when through a Christian statisticians group. I got an email about this position at Baylor that included director of consulting and a faculty role, which is what I had done at West Point for 10 years. And so I thought, "Boy, that just really sounds like me." And I said to my wife, "I know we're just moved and we're unpacking boxes. What do you think about going up to Waco and checking out Baylor?" And I said, "I feel really called." And she said, "If you feel called, we need to go check it out." And so we did. And we have moved to Waco.
Derek Smith:So we're glad to have you here. Not a lot of time in San Antonio, but maybe that's what got you close by here.
Rod Sturidvant:We had an apartment for the first couple years that we were on campus here, and then we've now have sold the place in San Antonio, moved up here. We really like Waco actually. That was something that we weren't sure about, San Antonio versus Waco for ultimate retirement, but we really like Waco.
Derek Smith:Was it, you talked about wanting to come down to San Antonio, you've got Fort Sam Houston, you've got Fort Hood, there's a lot of military ties up and down 35. Was that in part what you had connection with?
Rod Sturidvant:That's right. And we have friends that were in San Antonio, retired military as well. So it's a natural place for people to retire.
Derek Smith:Army Baylor down there at Fort Sam Houston. There's a lot of connections even down there.
Rod Sturidvant:Absolutely. And I've done quite a bit of work through the Baylor faculty here with the Army Baylor programs in terms of supporting their research.
Derek Smith:That's great. Visiting with Dr. Rod Sturdivant and let's talk about broadly statistical science and as we dive into training up that next generation. This is a broad question, for individuals with an aptitude or an interest in data science, what kind of opportunities are there in different industries, but also broadly as we just look at the landscape in 2023?
Rod Sturidvant:I think it's still the case that the opportunities are really, really great. A few years ago there was some data that suggested that it was one of the top ranked fields in terms of potential and opportunity and growth. I haven't looked recently to see if that still holds, but I think it's still the case. And the reason is that the data is so pervasive in every single field. I get people that come to collaborate from departments that you wouldn't expect, like political science and history and others. Because, in every field now there's data available and people are looking for, "What do I do with this data? How can I use it? How can I use it to help my industry, my business?" And so, I think the opportunities are great in the field and our students, our PhD students out of Baylor have done very, very well in terms of finding positions, not just in academia, but elsewhere.
Derek Smith:You've been teaching in this field for a while, how rapidly is it growing? I'm thinking, obviously you're constantly learning, but in a field like this, is how constant and how pervasive is that?
Rod Sturidvant:Yeah, it's daunting for somebody who's a consulting statistician because the field is growing so fast and there's sort of this merging of computer science with the statistical side with data mining and big data and so forth, that has really changed the landscape. And so, keeping up with things is a challenge, as you mentioned, somebody who's relatively broad like I am, but every day I'm learning new things myself. So it's kind of exciting.
Derek Smith:Who's a good fit? What characteristics or qualities would make someone a good fit to look at data science?
Rod Sturidvant:I think on the statistics side of it, you need to have some aptitude and enjoyment with mathematics. So if you're good at math, like I mentioned, it's become very computational. And so, I think there are people that like computers and programming and that sort of thing that could also find paths within the field very easily. So those would be two areas that I think I would look for. I personally, back in my day, it was such a different world. I liked looking at statistics like in box scores in the newspaper. So if you're somebody like that, then maybe think about a career in statistical science or data science.
Derek Smith:Absolutely. This is Baylor Connections. We are visiting with Dr. Rod Sturdivant, associate professor of statistical science and director of the Statistical Consulting Center at Baylor. And as we dive into the grant you've received, training up the next generation trying to interest a little bit of intrigue for the next generation. How much of a need is there in the data science workforce? I mean, obviously enough that the NSF is making a major investment in trying to build that up.
Rod Sturidvant:I think that's exactly right. And it's interesting, this grant, we propose a partnership with industry, sports industry and academia to try to inspire students to get into these kinds of fields like STEM fields such as data science. And the fact that we had, I don't remember the exact number, but it was more than 50 industry partners that sent letters saying that they wanted to be a part of this network that we're building. I think speaks to the fact that they recognize how important and how pervasive data use has become. And this is just in the field of sports. And so, I think that's true in every industry, but certainly in sports. I mean, everyone thinks of Moneyball and things like that, but it's happening. And there's not too many teams now that don't have an analytics group that work for their team. And places like ESPN have analytics groups that are analyzing and taking data and using it so they can talk about the sports on air and so forth. So it's all over the place. And the industry partners, their interest in this grant in part, is to inspire young people to want to pursue the field so that they eventually will come and work in it.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Rod Sturdivant. So the grant project is called Score. The NSF funded it pretty very generously, $1.1 million. Let's dive into that and start with the 101. What is Score, and again, a little bit more like tie it even a little further what it's designed to do here, in building up that next generation.
Rod Sturidvant:Sure. So I mentioned an industry partnership. So we have five academic institutions that are the grant holders, but we have industry partners. And what we're looking to do is, there's three goals of the grant, but I'll just describe the two that sort of are the main ones. One, is to build a network, which has been started because we have these industries partners, we have these academic partners, of people that are interested in inspiring students to get into the STEM field of data science. And then the second piece is to create a educational materials that can be used to do that. And so, we're creating hopefully a very, very large number of modules that involve students in sports analytics in an introductory way that will make them say, "Oh, this is really cool. I'm interested in studying more and learning more about this subject." And the hope is that these tools could be used independently by students or in classrooms by faculty or as part of summer workshops that might get kids to come and explore this field.
Derek Smith:You mentioned sports analytics, sports fans, that's become very pervasive in recent years. You find some people who don't like it as much, plenty who do. But for those who aren't as familiar, what's your kind of elevator pitch as to what sports analytics are and what they're designed to do?
Rod Sturidvant:Yeah, like I mentioned, data is so easily collected these days. It used to be sort of, well, this could be too narrow of a view, but baseball is the one where I always think of sports analytics as sort of starting, and it was kind of a natural because people collected data on all kinds of things, batting averages and earn run averages expanded into defensive metrics for players and so forth. But now all sports are collecting that kind of data and then using it to try to make decisions in terms of, who do I draft if I'm going to make a trade, is this a good trade to make? Or at the game level, and so we see this, a really good example is in football going forward on fourth down is one that has become just a huge thing. The Baylor football team is well known for going for a fourth down. And I don't know how much of that is driven by analytics or Dave Miranda's wanting to be very aggressive and positive, but a lot of teams do it based upon analytics. So somewhere in the background, somebody has analyzed data and says, "If it's fourth down and two, and you're on the other team's 30 yard line, you're better off going for it than not." And so, that's the sort of thing that analytics is being used for.
Derek Smith:I remember it would've been right before you got here when Baylor men's basketball was really delving into analytics. They found, for example, a player by the name of Ish Wainright, who a lot of listeners might remember. His stats weren't anything that jumped off the page, but they realized that when he was in the game, the team performed at a much higher level regardless of what his stats. I thought that's another neat example of analytics. You're figuring out some things that maybe you can't see with a naked eye.
Rod Sturidvant:Yes, absolutely. That's right.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Rod Sturdivant, and you mentioned partners from higher education. Who all is involved with this? It seems like a pretty great list.
Rod Sturidvant:Yeah, it's very exciting. And some of us knew each other before, but not all of us. So Carnegie Mellon University is one, they've had a very strong sports analytics program there for quite some time. They do a summer workshop program that sort of was part of the impetus for how we put the grant together. West Point, the partnership that was kind of... I knew the person at West Point and we had talked about it. Then there's somebody who's now at Yale, he was at ESPN. So we have ESPN also as one of the industry partners in this grant. And then St. Lawrence University in upstate New York is another one where they've had a pretty strong undergraduate sports analytics program already.
Derek Smith:Well, you mentioned almost 50 or over 50 industry partners. Who are just a few of the sports teams people might recognize?
Rod Sturidvant:The Pittsburgh Steelers, the Buffalo Bills, the Dallas Mavericks have all signed on. And there's some hockey teams that have also, I think the Florida Panthers maybe, or is it Tampa Bay, one of those two has signed on. There are other industry partners that you wouldn't recognize that are places where they do analytics for sports. Some of these have sprung up companies that are doing this sort of work.
Derek Smith:And so, you're partnering with them. What do these partnerships yield for students? Let's kind of take it to the students side now. What will these partnerships yield for students?
Rod Sturidvant:I think a couple of things. One, is the modules that we're developing are in partnership with these teams and industry partners. The hope is that we'll bring in real interesting problems that are relevant to those sports teams, and data sets that will come from those sports teams. So real data. And then the students will have an opportunity to work with that data in a way that will allow them to maybe not fully answer the questions. These are introductory sorts of materials, but at least give some insights that they wouldn't have otherwise and feel like they're contributing something back to the team and seeing how it could be used in sports. And so, they're getting a chance to see real world's data in a very different way.
Derek Smith:If I were to interact with one of these modules, if I were to hop on and see one down the line. What kind of things might I see? What kind of questions might I be asked?
Rod Sturidvant:I think you're going to see quite a variety. We just had a meeting last week of the whole team to talk about where we're at and what kind of modules we have developed. Each of the modules will have a video with somebody from that sport introducing it. So we've developed one here at Baylor, which is in a smaller sport, which is marathon running. And so, the young lady who's introducing the topic is the youngest Olympic qualifier in the marathon on the women's side. And she has a little video introduction of the data and what the students will be working with. And in this particular module, they'll be trying to answer the question, "Have we seen a sudden surge in world records at the track and field world championships?" Last year, there was a number of records set, and there was an article in, I think the New York Times that said, "Are we in a golden age where all these records are falling?" And so, they're analyzing data to try to answer that question in that particular module. But it could be a number of different things. We have one on stolen bases, where a baseball player introduces the video and there's a couple of little video clips of him throughout the module, and the students are trying to figure out what's the optimal sort of when to run and try to steal the base. So it could be a number of different things.
Derek Smith:Well, that'll be fascinating to see as this project grows and builds in the years ahead, months and years ahead. And Dr. Sturdivant really headed into the final moments of the program. So as we close, I want to ask you, you've been here at Baylor for three years now. Part of this grant, statistical science at Baylor, data science, part of Illuminate. Where do you see these areas that Baylor going and growing, and what are you excited about seeing that as it comes to fruition?
Rod Sturidvant:Well, it's hard to even imagine. I think we are growing in terms of data science at Baylor at a very rapid rate. We've got a new master's in analytics with the business school that's standing up. We've got a undergraduate program that is relatively young and it's growing by leaps and bounds. There's an analytics and a sports side to that as well. And so, I think what we're going to see in the next 5 to 10 years is an incredible growth in terms of data science at Baylor. And it's part of the Illuminate vision and that's part of the reason why I was hired, I think, is to try to help with that data science side of things. And so, I think all kinds of things are going to continue to happen. It's very, very exciting time to be at Baylor in terms of data science.
Derek Smith:It is. It's exciting to see, excited to see it build, and excited to see the Score project grow ahead. As sports fan I'd like to check that out when you get a chance, when the time comes that things are coming together. Well, Dr. Sturdivant, we really appreciate your time. Thanks for joining us on the program today.
Rod Sturidvant:Thanks for the interest.
Rod Sturidvant:It's great.
Derek Smith:Dr. Rod Sturdivant, associate professor of Statistical Science and Director of the Statistical Consulting Center, our guest today here on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder, you can hear some of the programs online at, baylor.edu/connections and you can subscribe on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.