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Red Sox CFO Talks STEM, Success, and Life as a Middle School Teacher

We talked to Red Sox CFO Tim Zue about his lifelong interest in math and science, the career lessons he learned from four years of teaching middle school, and the upcoming STEM Day event at Fenway Park on May 30.

Red Sox CFO Tim Zue

Tim Zue's love of math and science has been a huge influence on his career.

After earning a Bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering from MIT, he spent four years as a middle-school math and technology teacher before making a career change to work for the Boston Red Sox. Now entering his 16th season with the team, Zue was named CFO in 2017 and plays a key role in all financial aspects of the business. We sat down to talk with him about his love of STEM, his tenure in the Boston Public School system, and the upcoming STEM Day at Fenway on May 30.

Let’s start with a little background on STEM Days at Fenway.

Tim: We started this initiative where we felt like baseball is such a great sport for STEM curriculum, with a lot of statistics and geometry and those types of things. So, we started doing these days where we would invite schools to come to Fenway and do interactive things—things like an egg drop off the Green Monster, weather activities, all those different topics—and they get to learn about STEM in a fun, interactive environment and then they get to stay and watch a game after.

We try to do it one or two times a year and it’s been very successful—I think last year we had about 5,000 kids on one of the days. It’s really been a combination of education, learning, and also fun, and I think Fenway Park is a great place to create these interactive things that are fun for them.

What about the upcoming STEM Day on May 30?

We’ve hosted a lot of these STEM Days and they vary—sometimes they have the interactive activities like that egg drop I mentioned, sometimes we host a STEM fair where companies come in and share. iRobot has presented, and we actually had a weatherman come in and talk about the weather. The one coming up at the end of May is really specific about space and the connection between space and STEM, so a few people from NASA are going to be here presenting and talking to the students about space and those connections as well. Every time we have a STEM Day we give students a follow-along pamphlet that allows them to do some activities related to the game and related to baseball.

Where did your interest in STEM come from, and how did you end up becoming a teacher in the Boston Public School system?

My interest in STEM, my interest in science and math, really, started as a kid. Math was always my favorite subject, I was always good at it—I was on the math team in middle school—and physics was also probably my favorite subject in high school. So I’ve always had this love of math and science, and STEM subjects were always subjects I gravitated towards. When I went to MIT, I was a mechanical engineer and that love of math and science continued.

In terms of how I got into teaching, it’s a little bit of a unique story. I actually was working as a business consultant for Bain & Company. Massachusetts had this program called MINT—Massachusetts Institute for New Teachers—and there was an application process and I applied and was selected, so I was able to be taught and certified to be a teacher. For me, it was just always a natural connection, math and science were things I always loved, and being able to share that love with kids was really a great opportunity.

So I was a teacher in the Boston Public School systems for four years and taught sixth, seventh, and eighth-grade math and computers. And it was really an incredible experience, one that I loved.

Fenway Park in Boston

How did you then go from teaching to CFO of the Red Sox?

One of the benefits of teaching, obviously, is that you get the summers off. I taught for four years, so I basically had three summers to decide what I wanted to do. The first summer I worked at a software company, the second summer I traveled to Australia, and the third summer I said, “Well, it would be really cool to work for the Red Sox.” So I applied for an internship, and I was lucky enough to be selected as an unpaid intern for the Red Sox in the summer of 2003.

I was applying a lot of STEM concepts in this position: data analytics and calculating ticket pricing and things like that, so my math and science background that I’d had my whole life was helping me to solve problems for the Red Sox. After that summer, I realized how much I loved the idea of working for the Red Sox in that capacity. They offered me a job coming out of the summer, so I had to decide: do I stay teaching or do I go to the Red Sox? As much as I loved teaching, I had this opportunity to transition into a sports-business role, so I picked the Red Sox. I wanted to try something new, and basically, my first job was as a business analyst. I used math, I used data and statistics, a lot of Excel and computers and whatnot, to basically try to help the Red Sox make better business decisions. I did that for a long time.

This is my 16th season here, and I’ve slowly over the course of the time taken on more responsibility, taken on new challenges, and was named CFO in October of 2015. So I’ve been in this role for probably 2.5 years.

What were the biggest lessons that you took from teaching into your current career?

That’s a good question. I’ll say two things that I think are good lessons. The first is that I tried to teach my kids—and I was biased—that math was a subject that had the most real-world applications. That’s nothing against history or liberal arts, which are important too, but I always tried to say, “You know, you use math every single day. If you’re buying a loaf of bread and counting change or calculating probability, you’re using math.”

I was able to use this love for math and apply it pretty easily to all the challenges that the Red Sox were facing: How much do we charge for tickets? Do we sell more beer at night or during the day? What’s the best distribution of turnstiles to be the most efficient? So, you know, math I think was a really important and applicable skill that I took from teaching. It applies in any sort of real-world life situation, and I’ve always tried to tell my students that these are real-world things that we’re doing in the classroom.

The second thing that I learned is just how to treat people. I think as a teacher, my students could tell when I was being genuine—they could read people pretty well. I think it’s important to treat people, whether it’s an eighth-grade student or a Red Sox player or a business partner, with just incredible respect. So I think all throughout my career—whether it’s been as a teacher or as a consultant or here at the Red Sox—I’ve just treated people with as much respect as possible.

As a former teacher who is now a parent, what kind of skills—especially STEM—do you think are critical for your own kids to have?

Well, as I said, I’m biased about math and science, and that’s always going to be sort of my “love,” but as a parent—I have three kids who are five, three, and one—the other things that I think are important in terms of “life lessons”—and these are somewhat cliche—are just the importance of hard work and not giving up.

At times, my five-year-old will get frustrated if she’s not good at something or if she’s working on a project but she’s not getting it right away. That’s when she wants to do something else. And I think that’s a natural thing for kids to want to do, which is to do the whole ‘I don’t get it!’ I also think it’s important to try to break through that and push through those challenges because I think that facing that adversity or challenges and overcoming them is a really critical life lesson.

Even when I was a teacher—different kids have different “numbers sense.” Some kids get math easily and naturally, and other kids don’t. The ones who have the challenges with it—I think when I could see them pushing through that struggle and ultimately get to the other side and feel like they get it, it’s so rewarding. So I really hope my kids have that willingness to push through adversity and willingness to not give up. It’s just a really important life skill.

statue at Fenway Park

Thinking back on your experience as a technology teacher, how do you think STEM education and awareness of it has evolved, and how do events like [STEM Day at Fenway] help with that?

Well, I think back to my own experience as a student many, many years ago, and you had worksheets, you were doing multiplication tables, it was a lot of routine and a lot of process. And I think it was a little less hands-on and less real, actual learning. It was memorization.

When I got to be a teacher, the lessons were much more about not just memorizing something, but asking, “Why is it really like that? Why is four times four 16? It was about understanding that. And I think for me, as a teacher, I was always trying to make things hands-on. Probability was my favorite subject to teach because I had a bucket, I put four red balls in it, five blue balls and two green balls and I’d say, “Hey, you reach in here, what’s the chance of getting a green ball?” And we’d send the bucket around the classroom and everybody would do it and keep track of it, and people understood that.

I think, as it relates to the STEM Days, that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to do hands-on, interactive learning, where the kids are actually doing it. They’re not just sitting at a desk with a worksheet and a pencil, they’re up on their feet, they’re using their hands, they’re doing an egg drop off of the Green Monster. I think kids learn more and better when they’re actually doing, and I think that learning and curriculum have evolved a lot since I was a student 20+ years ago to now in the sense that it’s more hands-on, more interactive, and more in-depth.

Do you see that with the work your kids bring home as well? Do you think it’s still changing in schools?

Yeah, it definitely it. My daughter is actually only five and in kindergarten, but she’s at a Montessori school, and they definitely have that type of learning where—they’re doing things that at first I don’t even really understand! She had these beads and bead lines to do multiplication and she would skip counting by sevens and was using these beads instead. I see pictures and I hear her talking about it, and it’s very different from how we learned, but she seems to really like it. So, I do think curriculum is evolving in a way that’s allowing the kids to get a deeper understanding using physical manipulation. They had the individual beads, the line of beads, the cubes, they’re learning about cubic numbers without really understanding that’s what it’s about, but I think it’s great to see them doing that and really embracing it.

On TeacherVision, we have a collection of original projects called FutureFit that incorporate social-emotional skills into STEM lessons. As a former teacher, do you have three non-STEM skills that you would consider the most important for either your job or to bring into a classroom?

I would go back to hard work and passion. In any task, ambition and being willing to work hard and not give up is an important skill. As I alluded to earlier as well, just working with people and being a collaborative teammate—I think about sports and I think about the players—some players are just natural leaders and they create bonds with others that then creates an environment that I think is positive and reinforcing and encourages others to do better.

For me, hard work is number one, being respectful and being a good person is number two, and just having a positive attitude is number three, to be honest. If you’re tackling a challenge, positive attitudes are contagious. A lot of the people here [at the Red Sox] who have been really successful have had those three traits: they’ve been hard-working, they’ve been collaborative with other people, and they’ve been really positive and enthusiastic and that creates an environment where other people want to work with them.

Do you have one teacher who especially made an impact on you?

Yeah, definitely! Mr. Smith.

Mr. Smith was my physics teacher both my junior and senior years of high school. I took the standard physics class junior year and then AP Physics senior year. He just made physics so incredibly fun—and I’ve talked a lot about the interactivity of it—but I remember, and this was almost 25 years ago, I remember the demonstrations he did with physics. He had this thing where he had a train run under a volcano and pop out a ball. This ball flew over the volcano and landed right back where it came from—and the point was that an object in motion stays in motion, etc. I just have these really vivid memories of him showing these really cool demonstrations that proved all the formulas he was talking about. So I have this love of physics because of him, and I fell in love with the idea of teaching because of him. He was such an impactful and inspiring teacher, and I had him for two years. I thought, “I would love to have the impact he had on me on other kids,” so he was a really inspiring force for me and I think for a lot of other people. He was a very popular teacher and he made physics just interesting and fun.

"I think one thing I wanted my kids to know is that I cared about them and about their ability to learn what I was teaching them, but also that I really genuinely cared about their future, whatever it was going to be."

Do you have any advice that you would give teachers?

I would say, related to a couple of themes I’ve already mentioned, genuine passion and energy and enthusiasm is contagious. If you teach with that passion, your students will see it, they will feel it, and they will want to be a part of it.

Different teachers are different, so I don’t want to judge different styles, but if I stood up at the whiteboard and put things on there and said, “Okay, four times four is 16,” in a very monotone voice—especially with middle schoolers—I’d lose a lot of attention and people’s minds would wander. I was always trying to be more excitable, more engaging, more passionate about it, and I think that because my students could feel a really genuine love of the subject, they were able to embrace it as well. So I would definitely say that passion and energy are important.

I think one thing I wanted my kids to know is that I cared about them and about their ability to learn what I was teaching them, but also that I really genuinely cared about their future, whatever it was going to be. I was always trying to make myself available for them after class or after school if they had things they needed help with. I think that’s a great feeling for a kid to know that this role model or this person they spend a lot of time with truly cares about them and wants them to do well, and I think that can also be a motivating thing for the students who are less maybe self-motivated.

If you generate that genuine caring, you can also set high expectations, and hopefully they aspire to meet those expectations because they don’t want to disappoint you, almost similar to a parent. I tried my best to be enthusiastic, caring, and passionate, but also set high expectations.

How do you think events like the STEM Days impact the attendees and STEM education in general?

I’m biased, but I think when kids come to Fenway, it’s a positive experience whether they’re a baseball fan or not. It’s an environment that creates a lot of fun. We like to think that when students come they’re really excited and they get to have fun at the baseball game, but hopefully, they’re also able to learn a lot at Fenway Park because it’s such a unique landmark.

We’ve had feedback from families and kids that they walk away with a really excited look on their face, and hopefully they’ve learned something, which is the most important part of it. We hope that at the end of May they’ll have the same feeling—we’ll have students learning something about space, having a great experience at Fenway Park, and wanting to come back again.

A lot of STEM initiatives are student-focused, but there’s not really a lot of professional development materials or teachers who specialize in these subjects. Do you have any resources you could suggest for teachers, or have you received any feedback from teachers who were inspired by these events to get into more STEM activities in their classrooms?

I don’t have specific resources that I’m aware of, but we have talked to various professional development organizations that are interested in developing STEM curriculum around baseball, and I know the Arizona Diamondbacks have done some interesting things. Basically they work with teachers in Arizona to create curriculum about baseball—so again going back to statistics, probability, geometry—so there’s definitely things that we’re paying attention to and that we’d like to do.

We haven’t formed formal partnerships yet, but the Diamondbacks partnership has teachers come in, there’s an all-day training, there’s interactive things that they learn how to do so they can bring it back to the classroom, and that’s something we would love to do. We don’t have it yet, but the hope is that we’d have something similar that allows teachers to use baseball in a teaching way.

Do you do anything with these events to specifically encourage young girls and young women to get involved in STEM?

Absolutely. I think whenever possible—I mean look, we’re lucky that both boys and girls, men and women, love baseball. Both baseball and softball were actually the sports that had the highest increase in youth participation in the last several years. We definitely want kids—boys and girls—to fall in love with the sport, but at the same time, just as important, we want females and girls to fall in love with STEM because it has historically been an area that is more concentrated with men. As a teacher, I was always really enthusiastic when some of my female students would express an interest in it, and I sort of wanted to harness that passion and get them excited about it. And I think that if we have opportunities to do that on these days—and clearly, we’re trying to get everybody excited—but if there are opportunities to get the girls even more excited about STEM, we’re absolutely all for that, that’s something that we’re very focused on.

Learn more about the Red Sox Foundation and the upcoming STEM Day at Fenway Park here!

 

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