Math Lessons and Carols

by Roland Minton on November 28, 2016


One of the best ways to start the Christmas season is with Lessons and Carols of Christmas, presented by the Roanoke College Choir and Oriana Singers at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church. The soaring vocals and warm harmonies bring meaning back to a season cheapened by October decorations and Black Friday madness. Director Jeffrey Sandborg’s choirs are outstanding, and St. Andrew’s is a fantastic setting.

You may be wondering how math gets into this. The connection between math and music is actually very strong. For example, the intricate weaving of parts in Benjamin Britten’s This Little Babe is highly mathematical. Higher level mathematics explores the magical ways that simple rules and interactions can produce complex and beautiful patterns. Steven Strogatz’s TED talk gives several great examples of this. The MCSP conversation series event on Thursday, December 1, also explores the relationship between math and music.

At this year’s Lessons and Carols, mathematics played a more direct role as Roanoke College math professor Maggie Rahmoeller accompanied Oriana on her oboe in a gorgeous version of There Is No Rose. Collaborations such as this are part of what make Roanoke College great.

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Stat Crew Leads to Jobs

by Roland Minton on October 28, 2016


“How did you get your job offer from ESPN?” was one of the questions at last night’s MCSP Conversation Series talk. Taylor Ferebee, Sky Weber, Abby Hobby, and Connor Sampson talked about their summer work in sports analytics, the hot new field of statistical analysis of sports. Work with the Stat Crew has led to internships with professional sports teams and a Summer Scholars project. In Taylor’s case, it has also led to the possibility of doing analytics for ESPN.

Stat Crew is a group of students collecting and analyzing data for Roanoke College athletics teams. It is an excellent collaboration between academics and athletics, giving the coaches and players useful information and giving the students experience in sports analytics. A presentation on Stat Crew at a regional meeting last April included the Crew’s work on lacrosse. This caught the eye of the director of analytics for the Atlanta Blaze of Major League Lacrosse. A couple of conversations and emails later and Taylor and Connor had internships with the Blaze.

Taylor and Connor had separate projects, both involving watching game film and creating charts and visualization of passing and shooting tendencies of teams in the league. Connor focused on shot charts, creating profiles of locations on the field from which shots were taken and locations in the goal for successful shots. Taylor focused on passing schemes, where successful passes started and ended and which passes led to good scoring opportunities. The combination of their work gave the Blaze coaches detailed scouting of their players and each of the other teams and players in the league. Taylor created different types of graphs to find the formats that best conveyed information to the coaches.

Sky interned with the Cape Cod Baseball League. She computed various baseball metrics for the league. Park factors measure the influence of the different parks (which have different sizes and shapes and looks) on the outcomes of the games. Smaller parks, for example, create more home runs. Sky can tell exactly how many more or less for each park, and how to adjust each player’s record to allow fair comparisons. She also computed WRC+, which quantifies the total offensive contribution of a given player, adjusted to remove home park biases. Her statistics are used by professional scouts to evaluate players.

Abby created a successful Summer Scholars project. She is captain of the women’s soccer team, and her project is a statistical comparison of strategies and results in women’s versus men’s professional soccer teams. She found several differences, including higher scoring rates off of corner kicks in the women’s game. Abby adapted a computer app used by Stat Crew for lacrosse to allow her to collect detailed passing data for soccer. Her data allows her to measure the quality of a shot, given distance and angle to the goal and location of defenders. This will allow Stat Crew to better evaluate shots in future seasons.

One of the themes that emerged in the four talks was the need to program. Connor emphasized that the programming did not have to be very sophisticated, but when dealing with large amounts of data you do not want to work by hand. Another theme was the importance of gaining experience in the field, an opportunity that Stat Crew provides. Part of the answer to getting a job at ESPN is being able to dazzle recruiters with your experience, something Taylor did on her website with many of the visualizations that she created for the Blaze, Stat Crew, and her own research.

Sports analytics is an exciting new field. Join Stat Crew (contact Dr. Minton at and get started!

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Time Flies When You’re Doing Math!

by rahmoeller on October 25, 2016

Wow, what a whirlwind of a semester so far! I just realized that November is just around the corner! Where did October go? I’m sure our students are wondering the same thing.

We’ve had quite some fun with the Roanoke College Math Club this Fall. So far we’ve learned about the game Farkle and the Birthday Probability Problem, been mystified by the magical Dr. Dave Taylor, had our first AlgeBrawl, attempted to play the basketball game STATS (the extra-cool version of HORSE), and had an incredible bowling night. I told you – we’ve been busy!

Wait…what’s Farkle? What’s the birthday probability problem? What on Earth is an AlgeBrawl?

Why are you asking ME all these questions!!!! Ok, ok, I’ll elaborate.

Farkle is a dice game that has taken over the RC MCSP department several times. If you walk down the hall near Trexler 270 and you hear the sound of dice hitting a desk and wild laughter, you know it’s the MCSP faculty going a little crazy with the Farkle. For each turn, a player rolls six dice, and the goal is to earn as many points as you can. You earn points by rolling a straight, three pairs, three of a kind, ones, fives, etc. Each of these types of rolls is worth so many points. With each roll on your turn, you have to “score” some points – meaning you have to save the dice that are worth points and not re-roll those. If you use up your dice, you can re-roll all of your saved dice. However, if you at any point roll dice and don’t score any points, you “Farkle”, meaning you forfeit all points for that turn. Here’s a nice site with the rules more clearly explained and elaborated: Farkle Rules.

The extra cool thing about Farkle is that it leads to great discussions about probability! Should you take the chance to keep rolling dice in hopes of earning more points, or should you stop rolling at a certain point? How likely is it to get a Farkle? How likely is it to get 3 pairs? And we can keep asking more and more questions! It’s incredible! Plus, playing the game is loud and you can be obnoxious without getting in trouble – “hahaha, you Farkled!!!” is completely acceptable!

Ok, so after going a little crazy with Farkle, we found out that the next Math Club meeting fell near someone’s birthday! Crazy, right? We thought it would be fun to relate birthdays to probability…and eat cake, of course. Let’s start with the following assumption – there are no leap years, i.e. there are 365 days in a year. Now, if I asked you, what’s the probability that two people share a birthday in a room containing 366 people, you’d say…??? 150% you say? Well, let’s keep these percentages between 0 and 100. Oh, ok, so 100% you say – right! We actually call this the pigeonhole principle. Another example of this is the statement “there must be at least two left gloves or two right gloves in a group of three gloves.”

Well, what if we wanted to know the probability that in a room of 25 people, at least 2 people share a birthday? Let’s add one more assumption – let’s assume each day of the year is equally likely to be a birthday. A common thing to do in probability is to use the fact that the probabilities of all different events sum to 1. So, instead of finding the probability that an event occurs, we can find the probability that the event does NOT occur and subtract it from 1. In other words, we’ll find the probability that no one shares a birthday in the group of 25 and subtract it from 1.

Let’s do some math!! So, pick any 1 of the 25 people – their birthday could fall on any one of the 365 days in the year. But when we pick a second person in the group of 25 people, they cannot have the same birthday – so their birthday could fall on any of the 364 days that don’t match person 1’s birthday. The third person’s birthday would have to fall on one of the other 363 days, and so on. We want all of these to happen at the same time, so we multiply their corresponding probabilities:


In other words, the probability of at least 2 people sharing a birthday in a group of 25 people is almost 57%!!!! That’s crazy!

Our version of  AlgeBrawl was a combination of the Integration Bowl we had last year and Jeopardy – but related to Algebra. The students got into groups and attempted to solve algebra problems as quickly, and correctly, as possible. Each team was given three lifelines – ask a teammate, swap with a teammate, or phone a professor. The problems varied in level of difficulty – some were arithmetic, others were solving equations, there were logic puzzles, and factoring polynomials…and the challenge problem involved synthetic division. The students and faculty all had a blast!


The Winning Students

And, today, we heard from our very own Roanoke College Stat Crew, a club on campus dedicated to collecting data for the different sports on campus and analyzing the data to help provide information to the coaches. The students participating in the Stat Crew gain valuable experience with sports analytics, and some have participated in internships because of these experiences.

After hearing about the projects two students worked on during their internships, we played the basketball game of STATS (very similar to HORSE). Students paired up to try to not only answer questions about stats and sports correctly, but also to make the basket! If they answered the question correctly, they could attempt to make the shot; if not, they accrued a letter in STATS. If they missed the shot, they got a letter. Their goal? To make 4 shots – which increased in distance (and hence difficulty) before getting all the letters in STATS.

Here are some incredible snapshots:


Thinking hard about the question posed


Stumped by the question?


Nice throw!!


Apparently there’s a correct stance for throwing…


Looks like a good throw!


CS Students Present Research in Italy

July 26, 2016

In the Spring of 2015, now graduated Seniors Thomas Lux, Randall Pittman, and Maya Shende took part in a course on Machine Learning taught by Dr. Anil Shende in the Computer Science department. As part of this course, these students explored how they could use their new found talents to aid the Roanoke College admissions […]

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C RC Publish

June 28, 2016

Karin Saoub is finalizing a deal with CRC Press to publish A Tour Through Graph Theory. This will be the first textbook to present graph theory to a general audience, such as students in Karin’s INQ 241 course. Graph theory is the mathematics of network connections, which can be applied in an increasingly large number […]

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All Square with Math and Art

May 6, 2016

One of the definitions of square is “conventional” or “boring.” This spring’s art gallery presentation by Jan Minton’s Honors 301 class puts the lie to that. The phrase “mind blown” was used in at least one student’s description of her work. Students in the Mathematics and Art class created visual representations of how you can […]

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RC Students + MAA Conference = Crazy Fun!

April 22, 2016

The weekend of April 15, five Roanoke College students and three faculty members traveled to Germantown, MD to attend the Spring MAA Sectional Meeting, which was held at Montgomery College. This conference attracts a wide variety of mathematicians from MD, DC, and VA. Some are more applied mathematicians, some are more pure mathematicians, most are researchers, […]

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Roanoke College Represents at the MAA

April 22, 2016

Some people wear many hats; in Dave Taylor’s case, two of them are chairs. Dave, who chairs the Department of Mathematics, Computer Science, and Physics, is now chair-elect of the Maryland-DC-Virginia section of the Mathematical Association of America. Dave was elected to this position at the section meeting at Montgomery College (Md) April 15-16. It […]

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Physics majors participate in Edgar Allen Poe theatre production

April 21, 2016

The members of the Physics Group often advertise that “physics goes with anything.”  More formally, we maintain that there is no academic endeavor where the creative problem-solving approaches introduced in physics are detrimental.  In ten years of physics majors at Roanoke, we can list the following double majors: biochemistry, chemistry, computer science, math, music, philosophy, psychology, […]

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Money: Students Present Sports Analytics Research

April 18, 2016

Taylor Ferebee and David Moreau presented research posters at the Carolina Sports Analytics Meeting, which included representatives from the Charlotte Bobcats and ESPN: The Magazine. Taylor’s work on graphical representations and metrics of soccer effectiveness focused on passing statistics. David’s work on the relationship between golf consistency and effectiveness in different aspects of the game […]

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