College professor demystifies March Madness bracketology for Udemy students

Tim Chartier leverages the drama of sports to make math and analytics engaging

Teaching the art and science of NCAA bracketology

Some people like sports more than math; others prefer math to sports. In Tim Chartier’s lectures, there’s room for both. There’s also room for mime and puppetry, but more about that later.

Tim is a professor of mathematics at Davidson College, a small school in North Carolina, and he has a gift for making the subject relevant to his students, showing how they use mathematical thinking all the time without even knowing it. As Tim says, if you don’t like math, you just haven’t found a branch of it that fits the way you think.

At the same time, the general public has gotten familiar, if not comfortable, with data analytics and algorithms that help us find things online, guide our shopping choices, and match us with romantic partners. The movie “Moneyball” introduced a brand-new audience to the idea that mathematical thinking could be the key to our favorite sports team’s success, and billionaire Warren Buffett’s March Madness bracket challenge is now an annual sideshow to the big tournament.

Sports analytics is no longer a foreign concept, but it’s not where Tim thought he would focus his career either. It all started when he and his colleagues were studying how internet search results are ranked and testing their research method against other public ranking systems. They thought March Madness brackets would be a good example to test, and right away, one of their brackets beat 97% of the public. Later, another student’s bracket beat 99.9% of the public.

It turns out basketball is an attractive entry point for teaching predictive parameters and analytics too. “It’s very easy to get students involved” in developing analytics and preparing March Madness bracketing tips as soon as the selections come out. Tim explains that sports lends itself to learning about math, even if the students aren’t basketball fans, because “it’s an area where most have enough intuition to be able to do independent research, even if they’re totally math-focused.” As for math-averse students, March Madness gives them a reason to get curious about analytics.

It wasn’t until Buffett threw down his billion-dollar challenge in 2014, however, that “things really went crazy.” Tim had already worked on a soccer-related episode of ESPN’s “Sports Science” show at the time of the 2010 World Cup and had been sought out by major media outlets for his specific expertise over the years. Buffett’s challenge brought additional attention and interview requests and solidified Tim’s reputation as a foremost authority on applying analytics to predicting sports outcomes, not just rankings and brackets.

In 2012, Tim landed on Udemy’s radar. He’d been actively blogging about math and, as it turned out, he was a natural on camera. Little did we know, Tim has serious theater chops, in addition to his math prowess. Tim’s an accomplished mime and puppeteer who’s toured internationally with his equally talented wife. He’d already produced “Mime-matics” videos that introduce math concepts to younger students, but Udemy represented Tim’s first foray into online courses and he jumped at the chance to try his hand at video lectures.

Tim’s goal for “Math is Everywhere: Applications of Finite Math” was merely to create something that would appeal to math lovers and math haters alike. He got 1,000 enrollments the first day and has since surpassed 20,000 students. The entire enrollment at Davidson is 2,000, “so even if I taught the entire freshman class, it would take a long time to reach 20,000!”

It was a natural next step to create “March MATHness,” primarily so other teachers could use it with their students—and they do. The course is structured deliberately to alternate between content suited to a general audience and more technical detail suited to college-level students. On their way to building their own NCAA brackets, takers of the Udemy course gain an appreciation for data science.

While the transition from in-class to online required some adjustment, “the best advice I got from Udemy, and that I’ve stood by ever since, is making videos a maximum of 8-10 minutes in length,” Tim says. “I realized that I actually teach largely in 8-10 minute blocks, and I’ve used that guideline elsewhere too.”

Tim really enjoys seeing how March Madness can get kids energized about learning math. He’s toying with the idea of a Udemy course that incorporates his talent as a mime, which has the added bonus of working across language barriers. Tim’s sports analytics work isn’t limited to basketball either. For example, he’s helping an NFL team prepare for the draft, is studying officiating in the NBA, and has collaborated with NASCAR teams on pitstop efficiency and race-time strategies. He applies his mathematical mind to Davidson’s own women’s soccer team as well as its football and basketball teams too.

“I’ve gotten really good at explaining this stuff,” Tim says. “There’s lots of joy in getting people involved who don’t think they like math.”

Putting math aside for mime