An Unusual Way To Teach Math: Miming

Dec 17, 2013
Originally published on December 17, 2013 1:48 pm

According to the latest data from the Program for International Student Assessment, the U.S. ranks 26th in the world in math attainment.

Not so great for the world’s richest country, especially when you consider that 46 percent of all jobs require at least level 3 math skills — enough so that you can make change.

About 36 percent of all jobs require a level 4 math proficiency to do simple averages — something about 76 percent of Americans can do.

Beyond that, math skills drop off quickly.

Reporter Ari Daniel has the story of Tim Chartier, a math professor and mime who, with his wife Tanya Chartier, is trying to make math more relevant to a wider audience — without words.

This story comes to us from the STEM Story Project, distributed by PRX and made possible with funds from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.


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According to the latest number from the Program for International Student Assessment, the U.S. ranks 26th in the world in math attainment - not so great for the world's richest country. Forty-six percent of all jobs require at least level three math skills - enough so that you can make change. Almost all Americans can do that. Thirty-six percent of all jobs require a level four math proficiency. That enables you to do simple averages. Seventy-six percent of Americans can do that. But beyond that, math skills drop off quickly.

Our next story is about someone who's trying to make math more relevant to more people. And we promise it'll leave you speechless. Here's reporter Ari Daniel.

ARI DANIEL, BYLINE: I have a confession to make. I love math. These days, one of my favorite things to do as a reporter is to talk to people who get to love math for a living.

TIM CHARTIER: It corresponds to a partial derivative.

DANIEL: People like Tim Chartier. He's a mathematician at Davidson College in North Carolina. And there are two things that set this guy apart from a lot of mathematicians. First, he cares a lot about getting others to care about math.

CHARTIER: I really enjoy teaching those last-math-class-of-your-life classes, where often, a large percentage of the students really would rather not take the - it's not even that. They hate math. On the first day of class, I turn to the class, and I say: You may have never had a positive experience in math in your life. Well, we have 16 weeks for you to have one.

DANIEL: So that's the first thing you need to know about Chartier. The other thing is that he's a professional mime.

CHARTIER: I'm a mime and a mathematician. I mean, what the heck is that?

DANIEL: And even farther out on the what-the-heck spectrum is that for the last decade, Chartier has been combining his two loves in a performance genre he calls mime-matics. It's mime about mathematics.

CHARTIER: People don't have a good view of either one. And I'm insane enough to put them together.

DANIEL: And I'm insane enough to make a radio story about it. I mean, doing a story on the radio about math is hard enough. And doing one on mime is practically impossible. So this piece is going to take some work. Case in point: This is the sound of Tim Chartier performing.


DANIEL: See what I mean? Not very helpful. So, let me explain what's going on. I found this sketch on Chartier's video reel on the Web. It's about remainders and division.

Chartier shuffles onstage in a rimmed hat and a clown nose, carrying a piece of luggage. Chartier places the suitcase on a table and pulls out three miniature plungers. He makes them interact with one another. One of them competes for the affections of the other two, which leads to some plunger smooching, then jealousy and fighting.

He pulls out a fourth plunger, and he forms two pairs. All the plungers are happy now. Until Chartier reaches back into the suitcase, eventually pulling out nine more plungers, for a total of 13 on the table. He forms two groups of six, but there's one left over. So he regroups them. But no matter what he does with his 13 plungers, regrettably, he's always left with one. Thirteen is a prime number.

Then, at the very end of the sketch, the 13th plunger whispers something into Chartier's ear. He returns to the suitcase one last time, reaches in, and pulls out a toilet brush. The 13th plunger is in love, and Chartier, satisfied at last, shuffles offstage. So this sketch is a story about remainders. It has characters. Hearts are broken. And the audience can relate to what's happening on stage.

CHARTIER: By infusing that emotional content to it, we can have that in life. We don't want to be the remainder. People fight over the remainder.

DANIEL: It's tough to make a sketch like this, where the math is right and the mime is tight, so tough that for a long time, it didn't even occur to Chartier to try it. He'd always kept his math and his mime separate, and he excelled at both. He got a Ph.D. in applied mathematics, and he trained with the international mime legend, Marcel Marceau.

But then, in 2002, after finishing up his doctorate, he got a call from Boulder, Colorado. The library there had just received a grant to put on math-related performances, and they asked him...

CHARTIER: Would you be willing to be part of these math performances? And I was like, oh, well, I don't do math performances. I'm not sure what you're thinking. Oh, you could do your mime show. And I was entirely taken off guard and almost defensive about it. I was like, what are you talking about? It's not a math show. Give me a break.

DANIEL: But when he mentioned this conversation to his wife, Tanya, who's also his mime partner, she didn't even blink.

TANYA CHARTIER: I could see that it could be done. And so I said to Tim, I think there's clearly a mathematical component. So maybe he needed it pointed out, to think about it in a different way.

DANIEL: Time was hesitant at first, but finally he said, OK. Let's try it. He and Tanya went through their entire act, honing the sketches that already had a math-y flavor, and jettisoning the ones that didn't. And they added new ones intentionally rooted in math, like the plunger sketch.

CHARTIER: Math is inherently, in many of its forms, invisible. So I think that using the art form of mime makes the invisible quality of math visible in a way that feels both exciting and natural to a mathematician.

DANIEL: A mathematician like Darren Glass. He's chair of the math department at Gettysburg College.

DARREN GLASS: Yes. I think it's a lot of fun. Mathematicians, we scribble on pieces of paper, or on chalkboard. We get used to it. And here he is, enacting these ideas and these pictures that we have in our heads.

DANIEL: I spoke with Glass at a conference on recreational mathematics in New York City.


DANIEL: Tim and Tanya were there, performing some of their sketches before a crowd of 100 people. Children strained out of their seats to see what was going to happen next.


DANIEL: They loved it, and the grown-ups loved it.

CHARTIER: Right. We're going to tie back into thinking about: What does this have to do with mathematics? So let's think about...

DANIEL: At various points throughout the show, the Chartiers break their mime-y vow of silence for a minute to go over the math inside some of their segments verbally. But then it's back to miming. The Chartiers move through sketch after sketch, each one containing a different math concept, everything from geometric projections to infinity. The closer is the plunger sketch.


DANIEL: Afterwards, I wander through the audience to see what they thought of the show.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You know, I wouldn't have thought that I liked mime. But, actually, I was just kind of blown away by what they did.

DANIEL: You must have friends that don't like math. Do you think that this would be a good, kind of, gateway drug for them?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Absolutely. Absolutely.

DANIEL: But not everybody loved it.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: It was just not enough math for me to, like, think that it's good.

DANIEL: You wanted more math?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yes. Because it's a math conference. So...

DANIEL: Ron Lancaster feels the same way. He teaches math education at the University of Toronto.

RON LANCASTER: Throughout parts of it, I was trying to figure out where the math was. And I was struggling with that.

DANIEL: Tim Chartier doesn't mind the criticism, because most folks who see the show aren't math experts. The idea is to give those people a foothold, a way into the world of math.

CHARTIER: My goal in mime-matics is to create a seed that can grow to allow you to delve into mathematics. A very active goal for us is that we are not performing at you. You can feel us performing in a different way, because of you there. Your true performing is when the audience shares that journey with you. Marcel Marceau would say: You lift them to another place. And when you take them to another place, they do not forget you.

My greatest gift is in living in these two worlds: mime and math. They're not separate for me. It's me. It's how I operate. So what do you love? How different are they? No matter how different they are, you are the intersection of those. So find a way to embrace that intersection.

DANIEL: In other words, find a way to love all of yourself, and then declare it to the world as loudly as you can, or in Chartier's case, without saying hardly a word.

For HERE AND NOW, I'm Ari Daniel.


YOUNG: And Ari's story comes to us from the STEM Story Project. That's distributed by PRX, and made possible with funds from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. And you can see videos of Tim Chartier's math and mime - or, Jeremy, mithe, we should call it, mime too.


YOUNG: They're fantastic, at

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.