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.

John Rickert

Problem Solver: Mathematics professor John Rickert, PhD, has combined his interests in mathematics and baseball as a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and creator of a “Mathematics and the Physics of Baseball” course. (Photo by Shawn Spence)

The expert they sought was John Rickert, PhD, Rose-Hulman’s 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, 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.”

Rickert’s commitment to teaching carries on into the summer, when he can be found tutoring some of the country’s top high school science students attending the Research Summer Institute at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We help them learn how to write a scientific paper and give a scientific presentation,” he says.

This fall, Rickert completed his 23rd year as coordinator for Rose-Hulman’s popular high school mathematics competition and organized the Alfred R. Schmidt Freshman Mathematics Competition. He also gathers teams of top high school problem solvers for the American Regions Mathematics League's annual competition, and serves as chief judge for local and state MATHCOUNTS events.

Rickert is also known on campus as a general trivia buff. “I know a lot of other useless facts,” he admits. That knowledge helped lead some victorious college Quiz Bowl teams during his days as a student. “When Trivial Pursuit came out, no one would play me.”

Story by Dale Long, Director of Media Relations