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Classroom to Courtside: Online Math Professor Uses Passion for Basketball to Teach

John Griggs, an associate professor in the Mathematics Department with the College of Sciences at NC State, has two passions: math and basketball. Luckily, he doesn’t have to give up one for the other.

Growing up, Griggs played basketball in both high school and college before eventually becoming a basketball coach. Although coaching is a form of teaching, Griggs knew he always wanted to teach math.

Griggs joined the faculty at NC State in 1990 and has been teaching math courses ever since. Two of the courses he teaches on campus are also offered online: MA 141, Calculus I; Engineering Sequence and MA 241, Calculus II: Engineering Sequence.

These math courses are typically for students in engineering, physics, chemistry, math and statistics fields. These fields are considered hard sciences, sciences that are more math and data driven.

Griggs wanted to offer the courses online because he realized there was a growing need, especially among students with family responsibilities, students aboard submarines, oil rig platforms or deployed overseas.

“There were always people, that due to a variety of circumstances, couldn’t come on campus and do their math course,” Griggs said. He also thought online learning was “intriguing.”

According to Griggs, math is more than just equations; it’s also about how we understand math and use it to solve other problems.

“How is math used? That’s my way of teaching,” Griggs said. “I try to tailor all my examples in both of those classes to those fields,” he added.

Griggs’ classes, which are considered by students as some of the most rigorous and intense calculus classes offered by the university, are always full and capped at about 35 students. He tends to enjoy the smaller classroom settings. It allows for the teacher and students to get to know one another.

“I’m a people person,” Griggs said. “If I have 35 students or less, I learn their names.”

Griggs doesn’t always have the chance to learn everyone’s name, but when he does, he knows he’s made an impact.

“I had a doctor, a retired physician from Michigan who took the online courses. He always wanted to know and study calculus but he was a physician and didn’t really have to learn that much calculus,” Griggs said. “After he retired, he took the courses, and was so excited about what he learned, that he made a sizable donation to the math department.”

Online math instructor John Griggs coordinates game-day statistics for the NC State Men's Basketball team during a recent home game.

Online math instructor John Griggs coordinates game-day statistics for the NC State Men’s Basketball team during a recent home game.

In addition to teaching Calculus, Griggs also coordinates game-day statistics for both the men’s and women’s basketball teams. He originally did stats for the coaching staff when alumnus Les Robinson was the men’s head basketball coach. He traveled with the team, sat on the bench and did immediate stats for coaches.

“I really know and love the game, so it’s a good way for me to volunteer in a way that makes sense for the university,” Griggs said.

Doing stats at the games is fun and fast-paced, but it’s also a great hands-on approach to learning about math and statistics.

Today, Griggs keeps about 10 people on his staff of volunteers, including two to three current students.

“It’s a good, kind of fun application,” Griggs said.

Although fun and interesting, Griggs says this isn’t a guaranteed pathway to a career in statistics for a professional team. In fact, many students who get involved end up in completely different industries all over the country and world.

“One former statistician became a movie director in Hollywood and one now works for a children’s hospital in Kansas City,” Griggs said.

Many of the students who get involved aren’t even Griggs’ math students. They hear about what he’s doing and they want to get involved because, like Griggs, they simply love the game. And let’s face it, math and basketball pretty much go hand in hand.