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Maths & Theatre: Could they work together? This project says yes.

The Exacta group brings together actors, teachers, and other professionals, by offering online workshops to learn math using theater techniques. The results are remarkable.

Hands writing numbers on a green chalkboard..

photo_camera By using theater techniques, the Exacta group is offering a series of online workshops in the O'Higgins and Metropolitan regions (Photo: Pxhere)

Sebastian Thrun (54) is a renowned computer scientist at Stanford University and Georgia Tech. He's known for being the founder of Google X and the technology giant's autonomous vehicle development team, and being recognized for the probabilistic algorithms he developed for the field of robotics. 

When asked about what he thinks about the link between the world of numbers and the arts, he replied: "To me, mathematics, computer science, and the arts are completely related. They're all creative expressions."

The above answer is the explicit goal of a group of teachers and actors from Exacta: to explore how a branch of the arts, such as theater, can enhance mathematical skills in the Chilean school population. 

About five years ago, the collective took a step further and created plays that mix theater and math, annually showcased, at a Festival called Exacta (The Exacta Festival). 

They aimed to prepare students from different schools to express what they were learning in their math classes through theater techniques.

"Theatre provides the tools to take away the monotony of knowledge, mathematics, science, which are quite hard data. As a result, people begin to handle mathematical notions without realizing it," said Aldo La Barra, professor of theater at Tecya and member of the Exacta group. 

Lina Wistuba, an actress of the collective and professor at Universidad de Santiago, shared a similar opinion: 

"Maybe it sounds a bit pretentious, but we have come to discover theater models for teaching mathematics, statistics, geometry, and algebra. These findings, which we have been sharing with teachers, are useful in the classroom. These subjects are not their favorite; they see them as a nuisance. Many students have a hard time with math, so their interest decreases, and they start to resent the subject. So, these theater tools are more inclusive," said Wistuba, who has a master's degree in science with a specialization in Mathematics Didactics.

They held three online workshops with 12 sessions each during 2021. In each session, an actor or actress presented a theater technique, whether puppetry, storytelling, or stand-up comedy. 

Afterward, students must organize into groups and perform something that expresses mathematical content using these stage methods.

The Local Public Education Service selected and invited schools from San Fernando to participate. With the EXPLORA Associative Project for the O'Higgins Region, they contacted the heads of the Mathematics Department and the Technical Pedagogical Units. And the response has excellent.

The Colegio Inmaculada Concepción gave the workshop a green-lit to replace one of their weekly math classes during sophomore year. 

At Liceo San Francisco, they held the workshops on Thursdays afternoons, with about 25 students attending voluntarily from 7th grade to senior year. 

In addition, every Tuesday another workshop joined students and teachers from two schools: the Instituto Hans Christian Andersen and the Liceo Bicentenario Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna at the municipality of La Florida (Santiago). 

UC Chile aiding the project

Duvan Henao (left) and Eduardo Cerca (right)
Duvan Henao (left) and Eduardo Cerca (right) are the two professors from the Institute of Mathematical and Computer Engineering currently participating in this initiative. (Photo: Institute of Mathematical and Computational Engineering)

Duvan Henao, a Ph.D. in mathematics from the UC Faculty of Mathematics and the UC Institute of Mathematical and Computational Engineering, has been familiar with Exacta's work for years and recognizes its vast potential. 

During the first decade of the 2000s, some group members, Lina Wistuba and Apolo Coba met Pilar Iglesias, a former UC Chile Faculty of Mathematics professor. The faculty member, who passed away in 2007, was a renowned researcher in the development of Bayesian statistics in Latin America and was also Henao's undergraduate professor.

"She was the one who, together with Guido del Pino, committed to creating statistical literacy practice. Even if you don't do maths very often, you still need and use statistics in everyday life. For example, when you need a credit or insurance, or when companies try to convince you that something is successful when it is not," said Henao. 

Adding theater as a pedagogical resource to statistics courses for children took shape during the meeting between Pilar Iglesias and Lina Wistuba. The initiative eventually led to the workshops currently run at the schools.

The professor significantly influenced Henao, which led him to learn more about Exacta's work. 

When he joined the UC Chile as a professor, he asked the group members to present one of the plays they had created with Iglesias at the university. 

"That was a course within the Bachelor's degree in Mathematics and Statistics, when Pilar was around," recalled Henao. 

Today, he and Eduardo Cerpa -another Ph.D. in mathematics from the UC Chile Institute of Mathematical and Computational Engineering and Director of ACIP- collaborate with Exacta. 

They generate links between this group and the potential schools that could hold workshops.

"One of the university's goals, in addition to its role in the development of new knowledge and the education of people, is community engagement. This task includes outreach and being a catalyst between different stakeholders. The university bridges the gap and helps connect people; it operates as a meeting place for society. In a way, this is the role we are playing," said Duvan Henao.

The Potential of Mathematics to Boost Other Skills

Four images of the online workshops.
The image shows sessions of the online workshops. The teachers emphasize that the students develop transversal skills such as communication and collaborative work in addition to mathematics. (Image: Institute of Mathematical and Computational Engineering).

According to Lina Wistuba, the workshops use theater techniques to explore two essential aspects of mathematics: 

  • The concepts of the school curriculum are the fundamentals.
  • What she calls "foreign mathematical objects." 

"For example, we work with the number Pi, a notion that has as much to do with us as it does with life and the universe. It is an idea that we address from a theater point of view, visual arts, and everything that has to do with beauty or aesthetics. There are also contradictory objects and phenomena, such as the Möbius strip," she said.

The observable effect of these dynamics in the workshops is remarkable. 

"I think they play a role in improving students' math good-disposition. And that indirectly helps to plant a seed to increase the appreciation of mathematics in society," said Henao. 

The faculty member also highlighted another aspect: teamwork stimulates the integration of science skills with transversal competencies, such as communication and collaborative work. 

"This is also a key value," said Henao, "especially if one considers that an interdisciplinary approach is becoming increasingly important in all fields."

"Without going any further, I think the climate change crisis will be a game-changer. Society will no longer afford the luxury of having a disconnect between research and the most pressing matters that require unified views and teamwork. The fact that this is encouraged in young audiences is crucial. That's why I think this project has a potential that goes far beyond the initiative itself." 

Marilyn González, actress and member of Exacta, explained that this technique could be applied to other subjects: language, social sciences, biology, chemistry, and physics. 

"At the beginning, students are terrified because stage fright makes it difficult for them to express themselves and communicate. But when we manage to show that theater is friendly, fun, and playful, it helps them learn anything fearlessly."

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