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Rickert Hits a Home Run with Math Problem Solving

Just how high does a fly ball fly? The architects designing the Seattle Mariners’ Safeco Field in the 1990s needed to know, because it seemed possible that the new baseball stadium’s retractable roof might interfere with the game below if a fly ball would hit the ceiling.

The expert they sought was John Rickert, a Rose-Hulman associate professor of mathematics.

“I was apparently the only person who had hard data on that,” he says. “They contracted me to answer a specific question: Is it likely that a truss over home plate will be hit if the ceiling is closed?”

Rickert’s calculations indicated that it was indeed possible, but no more than a couple times a season. Architects didn’t have to alter the stadium’s design.

He was the perfect person to ask. Two of Rickert’s biggest passions are mathematics and baseball, and there’s probably no sport more fixated on numbers and statistics than baseball. “I started getting interested in it when I was about 6 years old,” he recalls. “I got baseball cards and started playing with the numbers. I started to get interested in the stories that the numbers tell.”

Membership in the Society for American Baseball Research was a natural fit for Rickert. And he has brought his interest in baseball into the classroom by creating a “Mathematics and the Physics of Baseball” course.

“I can use a lot of statistical analysis and analysis of the physics of the baseball in the classroom,” he says. For example, it takes parametric equations to properly analyze the flight of a baseball. “That makes for some good exercises for the students.”

Of course, it’s not all just fun and games in Rickert’s classroom. He’s very serious about challenging his students to excel. “I will ask them very difficult questions which require them to think about the material in a way that’s different from the simpler way they may be used to,” he says. “I try to get them to ask a lot of questions. I want them to always be questioning me.”

His involvement with students also includes coordinating Rose-Hulman’s popular high school mathematics competition and organizing the institute’s Alfred R. Schmidt Freshman Mathematics Competition. He also serves as chief judge for the Society of Professional Engineers’ local and state MATHCOUNTS events on campus.

Anne M. Houtman, vice president for academic affairs

Anne M. Houtman

Dr. Houtman, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, joined Rose-Hulman in 2016 after serving as dean of the School of Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Engineering at California State University, Bakersfield. She also led the Thomas H. Gosnell School of Life Sciences at Rochester Institute of Technology from 2011-13.

Dr. Houtman earned her doctorate in zoology from the University of Oxford, a master’s degree in anthropology from UCLA, and a bachelor’s degree from Pomona College. She also attended Harvard University’s Institute for Management and Leadership in 2015 and is also a Rose-Hulman professor of Biology and Biomedical Engineering

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