A Wordless Way to Teach Math

July 31, 2016

A Gesture Toward Math

Tim Chartier
Tim Chartier jokes that he once led a double life. By day he was an academic, with a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Colorado at Boulder. By night he was a performing artist, trained in mime by Marcel Marceau.

"There was my performing-arts world, where they only knew me as an artist," he recalls, "and there was my applied-math world, where some people knew I did art, but most weren’t aware."

Then, in 2002, a librarian at Boulder who was setting up performances for a math exhibit approached him with a novel idea: combine his two fields.

"I was totally — not necessarily offended — but I was confused," says Mr. Chartier, who is now a professor of mathematics at Davidson College. "I mean, come on, there was no math in my mime show."

But there could be, he realized, and three years later, Mr. Chartier, along with his wife, created Mime-matics, a stage show that demonstrates mathematical concepts.

No white face paint or striped shirts are in the act, but there are dramatic gestures, fluid movements, and an array of invisible props. To help his audience visualize infinity, for example, Mr. Chartier holds tight to an imaginary, never-ending rope. He pulls it, he cuts it in two, yet is never able to reach its end. "Infinity is larger than I can understand, yet I was able to act it out with a pretend rope," he says. "The mime enables us to look at these large concepts and learn about them."

At first, Mr. Chartier tailored the sketches for a young crowd and performed only at local schools. He never intended his performances to attract a wider audience, let alone play a role in his scholarly ventures.

When he arrived at Davidson, however, his department not only encouraged the show’s progression but supported it financially. Within a few years, he says, he began receiving more invitations to perform — at elementary and secondary schools, on college campuses, at mathematics conferences — and his unusual skill set gained national attention. It even helped his successful case for tenure and promotion.

Mr. Chartier performs at least once or twice a month but has no intention of leaving academe to pursue mime full time. Instead, he says, he’ll promote STEM education by showing audiences that math can be entertaining.

"I often tell my students that my biggest goal is for them to leave my class with a story about how they enjoyed math," he says. "In its own way, Mime-matics is my story. I feel like I’m uniquely placed to do this." — Sydni Dunn

‘A Long-Term View’

Bill Smith
Eloy Ortiz Oakley
Eloy Ortiz Oakley, president of the Long Beach Community College District since 2007, will become chancellor of the California Community Colleges system in December.

He earned his first college degree within the system, at Golden West College, after serving four years in the U.S. Army. "Golden West opened a door for me," says Mr. Oakley, who went on to earn a bachelor’s degree and an M.B.A. at the University of California at Irvine.

At 51, he is significantly younger than his two recent predecessors as system chief, Brice W. Harris and Jack Scott. The system, whose 113 colleges serve more than two million students, "needs the perspective of a long-term view," Mr. Oakley says.

His efforts to improve the outcomes of minority students in his district have gained national attention. He helped to create Long Beach College Promise, in partnership with the city and California State University at Long Beach. The program encourages students to begin thinking about pursuing a college degree when they are in elementary school, provides a free year at Long Beach City College for high-school graduates, and guarantees transfer to Long Beach State for students who meet academic requirements.

In accepting his new position, Mr. Oakley said such collaboration across education systems and with local and state governments will be a key focus of his efforts as chancellor. — Eric Kelderman

Support for Science

U. of Central Florida
Elizabeth A. Klonoff
When Elizabeth A. Klonoff received her first research grant, she didn’t know how to go about spending it. "If I needed to buy paper clips, I had no idea how to do that," she says. Were there special forms to fill out? Would she receive funds in advance or reimbursement afterward? Researchers, she realized, also needed to become managers.

In her new role as vice president for research and dean of graduate studies at the University of Central Florida, which she started part time in July and will begin full time in October, Ms. Klonoff hopes to keep graduate researchers out of those kinds of sink-or-swim situations. "I’m not an administrator by temperament," she says. Her administrative skills developed by necessity. "You need to provide the inside help to allow the scientists to do the science."

Ms. Klonoff, who is finishing up as co-director of a joint doctoral program in clinical psychology at San Diego State University and the University of California at San Diego, began her career by studying cigarette use and health disparities. Her research was supported by an unusual California tax that she says encouraged tobacco companies "to fund themselves out of existence." Public grants, she learned, can insulate scientists from the wrong kind of corporate influence.

In recent years, however, government support for science has become less reliable, and, she says, funds come with more restrictions and paperwork requirements than they once did. Her new employer, the second-largest doctoral institution in the nation, is ranked by the National Science Foundation as No. 105 among 632 institutions for total research-and-development spending in 2014, at $185.6 million.

The university has supplemented government funds with support from business partners including Siemens and Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Ms. Klonoff speaks warmly of these relationships but points out that revenue is not a synonym for success. "Universities are more than just those disciplines that can generate research dollars," she says.

Just as important as where research funds come from is where they go. Ms. Klonoff began her career by conducting local studies that, she says, "engendered a lot of good will." She hopes to complement corporate investment with small-scale local partnerships — "not for a lot of money, but on issues that the community finds important and relevant."

If successful, such efforts could create a positive-feedback loop. "When legislators can see a direct benefit of university activity in the community in which they live, it’s no longer a kind of intellectual activity," she says. "It really is a pragmatic benefit." — Daniel A. Gross

‘Great Immigrants’

Three higher-education administrators and four professors are among the "great immigrants" recognized by the Carnegie Corporation of New York this year for their notable contributions to the progress of American society.

The administrators are Ronald J. Daniels, president of the Johns Hopkins University, from Canada; Peter Blair Henry, dean of the Leonard N. Stern School of Business at New York University, from Jamaica; and Farnam Jahanian, provost and chief academic officer of Carnegie Mellon University, from Iran.

The faculty members are Roberta Capp, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and winner of the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science, from Brazil; Fei-Fei Li, an associate professor of computer science at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab and the Stanford Vision Lab, from China; Bharati Mukherjee, an author and professor emerita of English at the University of California at Berkeley, from India; and Aziz Sancar, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, from Turkey.

Obituary: Explorer of World History

William H. McNeill, a prolific historian who influenced how world history was taught in the Western hemisphere, died on July 8 in Connecticut. He was 98.

A professor emeritus of history at the University of Chicago, Mr. McNeill served as chair of the department in the 1960s. He joined the university in 1947, after serving in World War II, and taught there for 40 years. Mr. McNeill was instrumental in broadening the focus of world history from its limited Eurocentric view. He emphasized the connections and exchanges among civilizations, which he discussed in his seminal work, The Rise of the West, which won the National Book Award for history and biography in 1964.

Among his more than 20 books are one on the history of disease, Plagues and Peoples, and a memoir, The Pursuit of Truth. He served as president of the American Historical Association in 1985. A quarter-century later, he was awarded a National Humanities Medal by President Obama. — Anais Strickland

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