The music behind math

More than 30 area high schools will attend MathFest on Thursday in the Chestnut Room of Kilcawley Center, and for the first time, Matheatre will perform “Calculus: The Musical.”

Matheatre is made up of non-students who travel to about 75 universities, high schools and conferences each year to perform the musical, a sketch comedy that follows the story of Isaac Newton as he developed his theory of calculus.

Co-writer Sadie Bowman said the musical includes appearances by other well-known mathematicians throughout history, including Gottfried Leibniz, G.F.B. Riemann, Archimedes and more. 

In 2005, her colleague, high school math teacher Marc Gutman, developed a series of songs for his students to use as mnemonic devices.

“He found that when they could set rules or formulas to popular tunes, they could remember, retain and apply the information with much more success,” Bowman said. “We worked together to develop the songs into a musical for a cast of two.”

She and Gutman launched the first tour in the summer of 2006. In 2008, they licensed “Calculus: The Musical” to Know Theatre of Cincinnati.

Alicia Prieto Langarica is an assistant professor of mathematics who experienced “Calculus: The Musical” at the University of Texas at Arlington. She said the musical should be exciting for students.

“It is a good opportunity for students to learn calculus if they didn’t already take it in high school,” Langarica said. “It is a fun way to present the concept, and students tend to learn the songs.”

She added that “Calculus: The Musical” gives students who have already taken calculus a deeper understanding of the concepts.

“For high school students that had never been exposed to calculus, it made it exciting. They wanted to learn it,” Langarica said. “Bringing ‘Calculus:

The Musical’ is a great addition to an already amazing program, as is Mathfest. [It] is a wonderful way to reach out to the community and show how calculus can be fun as well as really useful.”

Thursday’s event begins at 9 a.m. It will feature a variety of math-related workshops and contests.

The Beating Las Vegas workshop will be taught by Jay Kerns, an associate professor of mathematics and statistics.

Kerns will teach students the strategy used by Massachusetts Institute of Technology students to count cards and beat the Vegas casinos.

In addition, the Mathematical Modeling of Heart Cells workshop will be taught by Jozsi Jalics, an assistant professor of mathematics and statistics. Jalics’ goal is to show students the equations behind cardiac activity.

“A lot of students may study the heart, but can’t imagine how it could be modeled with equations,” Jalics said. “Connections are made in biology and math.”

Langarica said she thinks Mathfest is a great recruiting strategy.

“It gives high school students a great opportunity to get to know other students and faculty, as well as to explain to them all the things that can be done with a mathematics degree,” she said.

Bowman said she hopes the musical relieves any anxiety a student may have about higher math.

“We hope to diffuse some of that apprehension by showing that it’s also a subject that holds a lot of beauty, humor and even fun,” Bowman said.