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Davidson prof uses mime to explain complex math, science concepts to students – and adults

By Reid Creager
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Tim Chartier laughed when he was read this longstanding Internet headline: “ ‘We hate math, say 4 in 10 – a majority of Americans.”

The headline, about a 2005 Ipso poll, meant to say that more Americans hate math than any other subject. It’s a reminder that when something is challenging, many of us aren’t likely to be very good at it – especially children.

Chartier and his wife, Tanya, are trying to help with that. Ten years ago the Davidson educators created “Mime-matics,” a presentation in which they use mime to help illustrate and simplify complex math concepts.

“At many levels, (mime and math) seem like a rather odd combination,” Tim Chartier told an audience last year.

“Probably about the only thing that makes them feel natural is that a lot of people don’t like either of them. They make fun of math and they make fun of mime.”

The Chartiers, who’ve trained several times with Marcel Marceau, are well schooled in both. Tim is associate professor of mathematics at Davidson College; Tanya is beginning a job as educator/coordinator of literacy at the new Davidson Green School.

Subtracting the negative

A study released in June by the National Assessment of Educational progress showed that 17-year-olds’ math scores have remained stagnant since 1971, while kids ages 9 and 13 have made modest gains. The lack of progress surprised some experts, considering that a higher percentage of parents have attended college in the past 40 years than before.

“There are many subtle references in our cultural norms that suggest to kids and adults alike that math is either hard, boring or nerdy – all negative images,” Tim Chartier said. “Growing up with these messages can lead kids away from math at times, or to assume that if they are not immediately good at math that they are not going to be good.

“Add in that memorizing is boring for most of us and that historically, math in the U.S. has been taught in a manner in which kids memorize the facts rather than explore via manipulation of physical objects – which leads to number sense and conceptual understanding of the facts. Luckily, this is changing in our schools as teachers are trained how to guide students in looking for patterns and making connections rather than simply memorizing facts.”

Chartier said his presentation was originally intended for younger audiences but resonates with all age groups. “The show has been performed as a school assembly for 300 K-2 children and for 600 mathematicians at a national meeting. We’ve also performed for 20 children in an elementary classroom or 40 math majors and their professors at a college.”

One presentation involves just Tim; the other features him and his wife. The show can be adapted for specific audiences.

“In July we performed for the Project Science Camp, which is a girls’ STEM camp held at Queens University,” Tanya Chartier said. “In that show, we did more teaching of mime illusions and connecting it to math topics like measurement and approximation.

“Some audiences fit more artistic presentations of the material, where we may even say very little. For some college audiences, Tim talks more about the mathematical topics and how they relate to mathematical research. Pieces are added or taken out dependent on the audience, the goals of the show, the time parameters and sometimes the staging limitations.”

Tim Chartier said making math visual can make it less intimidating.

“Marcel Marceau would often say when we trained with him, ‘Mime makes the invisible visible.’ This makes mime a natural art for math, in many ways. We can visualize mathematical concepts that are inherently invisible.”

One example is infinity, a complex concept for many in a mathematical context. In his presentations, Chartier performs a mime skit in which he’s pulling on and comically struggling with an endless imaginary rope.

Here’s how he explains it:

“After struggling with the rope, the mime grabs the rope and cuts it. He watches as all of the rope to one side of him is whisked away. He continues to struggle with the rope remaining. At the end of the sketch, we ask – yes, we talk as mimes between sketches – how much rope was left on stage after that initial cut. The rope still extends forever in only one direction after that cut. So, it still has an infinite amount.

“Reflect on this. We had an infinite amount, we subtracted an infinite amount, and we were left with an infinite amount. That’s a new and sometimes amazing idea to audience members. Still, children answer this question. How? In part, the infinite rope gives a visual way of considering the topic.”

Tanya Chartier teams with her husband on a skit involving a 25-foot-long, slinkylike tube (he’s inside) that takes on various shapes and sizes. This illustrates the concept of topology – the study of geometric properties and spatial relations that are unaffected by the continuous change of shape or size of figures. Topology has played a crucial role in the development of the general theory of relativity and quantum theory.

“Infinity and topology are not applied math ideas,” Tanya Chartier said. “Yet, there are a lot of ideas that apply to the world. Tim has a Ph.D. in applied mathematics and does research in that area.”

Exciting visions

The program has come a long way since 2003, when the Chartiers were invited by the Boulder (Colo.) Public Library to do a mime show involving math. They’ve since performed in the Netherlands in connection with an international conference on math and art, among other locations.

One happy constant has been positive feedback from kids and adults.

“We have ample stories shared about children getting very excited about math,” Tim Chartier said. “We also hear about parents who don’t like math bringing their children who do. They often talk about being surprised and delighted to be sitting side by side and both engaged.

“We also have various stories of children asking a lot of questions about math after the show. Teachers can also lean on some of the mathematical ideas in their teaching, which is very intentional on our part.”

That’s part of what keeps them excited about the future.

“One neat part of Mime-matics is that it also visualizes the world of a mathematician,” Tim Chartier said. “We often have math professors come up very excited about the show who offer us new ideas for performing. We have several such sketches that are still in development.”

Tim Chartier will also teach a Charlotte Teachers Institute class for a third straight year, always connecting math to popular subjects. The first year was “Math through Pop Culture”; last year was “Entertaining with Math”; this year it’s “Math and Sports” – the latter a natural for someone who has been a bracketologist for ESPN during March Madness.

He also helped students develop a version of Chutes and Ladders for use in their Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools classrooms, and he chairs the Advisory Council for the new national Museum of Math in New York City.

“It’s all about showing that math has real-world applications for all of us,” Tim Chartier said. “It can be interesting and even fun.”

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