|Teaching Award Recognizes Chartier as Master of Both Math and Mime
April 11, 2007
Contact: Bill Giduz
Assistant Professor Tim Chartier has been honored as one of three top new mathematics teachers nationwide for his outstanding exposition in print, in classrooms, and in pantomime.
Chartier will receive the Henry L. Alder Award from the Mathematical Association of America in early August at its annual meeting. The award recognizes faculty members with two-to-seven years experience whose teaching of undergraduates has been extraordinarily successful, and who have been influential beyond the classroom. The award validates the success with which Chartier has at last been able to reconcile his passion for performance with his devotion to math, after years of wondering how he could possibly embrace the former without diminishing the latter.
Chartier arrived at Davidson in fall 2003 with impressive pedigrees in both applied mathematics and performance art. He began performing puppetry at age nine, and began studying pantomime in high school. He was making appearances at national and international conferences during his years as an undergraduate at Western Michigan University, where he also discovered his facility with mathematics. “Math was easy and fun for me,” he said. “To me, it’s creative. It has deep challenges creatively which engage me.”
|Tim Chartier will be honored in August by the Mathematical Association of America as one of this year's top beginning math teachers.
He met his spouse, Tanya, through his art, and began developing performance pieces with her. They supported themselves as master’s degree students through summer performance tours, and during his doctoral work in applied mathematics at the University of Colorado, they took master classes with Marcel Marceau and studied at the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre.
They seriously considered the possibility of a career as performance artists. But Tim had suffered years of debilitating illnesses that kept him out of school for long periods of time, and the travel associated with performance drained his energy. He was also not satisfied with the fact that a performer's schedule doesn't allow time following shows to make strong personal connections with audience members. So the couple began tempering their flirtation with performance in favor of Tim’s increasingly satisfying courtship of higher math.
He contemplated the respective places of art and math in his life throughout postdoctoral work in numerical analysis and partial differential equations at the University of Washington, which included subcontracted research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The more success he enjoyed in mathematics, the more performance began to feel like a secret that would end up being hidden from his peers.
By the time he accepted his full-time position at Davidson, he had no idea if he could pursue performances amidst his many academic responsibilities. So he devoted himself completely to becoming an effective classroom teacher, and succeeded magnificently.
As an Alder Award winner, he will present a talk at the meeting that he’s tentatively entitling “Engaging Students Mathematically – Pitch by Pitch,” which will explain his approach to motivating students in the classroom. “It’s their four years,” Chartier said. “My job is to open up opportunities that may be helpful. It’s their responsibility to explore them and see what fits.”
Like all members of the department, he teaches a variety of courses, including calculus, numerical analysis, computer programming, differential equations, modeling, and “Exploring Mathematical Ideas.”
He employs an artistically tinged style of instruction that draws rave reviews from students. One wrote in a course evaluation last fall, “Chartier is amazing! I don’t like math much but I would take another class from him. He’s also a great person to talk to, always helpful, funny, and involving us in his life through stories.”
He succeeds with expert authority on his subject, a raconteur’s skill at personal stories that illustrate the point at hand, and an endearing way of laughing at himself. Years of movement training lead him to flow back and forth across the classroom with perfect posture, head supported high on a long neck, hands sweeping elegantly to point out the symbolic formulae he teaches, and large eyes that connect to students with supernatural attention.
He peppers class periods with occasions for students to talk briefly together about concepts, and he issues homework assignments frequently to help students keep up to speed.
He also seeks opportunities to show how the discipline applies to daily living. For instance, he challenges students to devise the most efficient path for a sales representative to follow in visiting several different cities, shows them how Google determines ordering of search results through the PageRank algorithm, and leads them to write a software program that can solve Sudoku puzzles.
|Chartier speaks with a student after class.
“I think real-world examples give a class energy,” he said. “A lot of students aren’t math majors, so reminding them of applicability of math concepts to daily living makes it more meaningful.”
He has taught “Mathematical Modeling” only three times at Davidson, but has already led students to outstanding results in the annual national Mathematical Contest in Modeling. Whereas previous Davidson teams had earned a meritorious (highest ten percent) designation only once, five teams of Chartier’s students in his first two years at Davidson won that distinction.
He has also been successful at recruiting students to work with him on projects, or to undertake their own. In his three years at Davidson, he has helped six students complete a dozen research projects, and four of those have been published. After submitting a co-authored article to Math Horizons magazine on “Mathematical Movie Magic” about the use of differential equations to model Yoda in Star Wars II, he was invited to join that publication’s editorial board.
He quickly became a primary source for articles, publishing pieces providing classroom material on the failure of the Patriot missile system during the Gulf War, and another on the surprisingly unstable aerodynamics of soccer balls. He involved students as well. Peter Allison ’06 wrote a feature article on math and terrorism, and Michael Flake ’06 published two book reviews. The journal PRIMUS will soon publish another Chartier article on how to use Yoda in classroom instruction, and he is currently working on a textbook on numerical analysis.
His most consistent student collaborator has been Nick Dovidio ’07, a math whiz who will graduate in May with twenty math credits after arriving at Davidson with no particular major in mind. Eight of those credits have come in classes and independent study projects with Chartier. Dovidio said, “What he does best is encourage independent research, because he believes undergraduates have something to contribute to the research community.”
They currently collaborate to enhance computer algorithms that will broaden their scope of applicability for Los Alamos National Laboratory, which houses some of the world’s fastest supercomputers.
Dovidio also appreciates Chartier as a friend and mentor who has shared many meals at Vail Commons, and helped him decide on and prepare for graduate studies in computer science at Stanford University. “Dr. Chartier has influenced me not only to pursue math, but to decide the area I want to pursue," Dovidio said. "He was helpful in explaining the options and helping me figure out what’s best for me.”
Chartier’s departmental colleague, Associate Professor John Swallow, said simply, “In the five years since receiving his Ph.D., Tim has been a dynamo, and his prospects are more stunning still.”
Settling into a firm foundation in collegiate teaching and a family that includes two young children, Chartier has also been able to find a comfortable way to resurrect his artistry by presenting it as a lesson in mathematic. He developed a show called “Mime-matics” during the last two years to help young people understand math, and has presented it at several area elementary schools and at Charlotte’s Discovery Place children’s theatre.
In the show he dons a Velcro mask and sticks shapes onto it to illustrate geometry. He gropes and cuts an imaginary rope in a sketch on infinity, and uses toilet plungers in a sketch about the remainder one.
|A sketch in Chartier's "Mime-matics" show involves a Velcro mask and geometric shapes that attach to it.
But it’s not always just a one-mime show. At the conclusion of most performances, several of his students have swept up small groups of students into an interactive lesson on cryptography in the context of ancient Roman secret codes.
Chartier is now working with masks to create another performance project. A noted performance arts craftsman is building for him masks of Archimedes, Sir Isaac Newton, Sophie Germaine, and Pierre de Fermat. Chartier dons the mask, adopts the characteristics of the mathematician, and explains to young audiences their contributions to the field. Pete Schild ’07 is assisting him by researching potential characters for the show, searching out those with interesting stories that lend themselves to performance.
Chartier has already developed a skit for the intriguing story of Fermat’s Last Theorem. This French mathematician declared in 1637 that it is impossible to separate any power higher than the second into two like powers. He wrote in the margin of his notebook, “I have a truly marvelous proof of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain.”
However, Fermat never revealed the proof anywhere else, and mathematicians struggled with his conjecture for 357 years, until the proof was finally made in 1995. As he tells the tale, Chartier elicits laughter from his audience by picking up larger and larger books, trying to find one that would have enough room in the margin for Fermat to write his proof.
Chartier is happy to find that the mathematical community approves of his innovative means of conveying math to the public. He was invited to organize a session on “Entertaining with Math” at the recent national joint mathematical meetings. A packed room full of teachers and professors enjoyed sketches from Chartier’s own “Mime-matics” show, as well as demonstrations by a magician, a card shark, a juggler, and a dancer that demonstrated how creative arts can help young people appreciate mathematics.
The Alder Award is yet another confirmation of his artful approach. As personally satisfying as it is, Chartier believes his departmental colleagues deserve a piece of the prize also. "I see it as an affirmation of the college and my colleagues,” he said. “It's been clear from the beginning that they wanted me to do whatever it took to become an effective teacher, and they’ve stood with me and helped me all the way.”
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,700 students. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently ranked in the top ten liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report magazine.
# # #