Musical Math: The Big Problem of the Infinite Band

2019-05-17

By Denise Studart, Paulo Colonese, and Leticia Guimarães*

The connections between the different fields of STEM knowledge have long been established in formal and informal educational settings. But how can Science museums go beyond STEM, supporting science, technology, engineering, and mathematics while also fostering important ideas such as inclusion, citizenship, and cultural values?

In Brazil, the STEM education approach thrives in many schools as well as Science museums across the country. The principal goal of Brazil’s STEM approach is to engage students in practical activities that combine science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to teach creative perspectives and enhance problem-solving skills. In this sense, it can be said that STEM education is not a methodology but a pedagogical approach that includes integrating different fields of knowledge, developing reasoning skills, building creativity and socialemotional skills, and creating solutions to real-world problems through debate and cooperation.

You cannot underestimate the intelligence and sensitivity of children, and you have to keep in mind the contribution to their cultural formation.

There are new initiatives that have attempted to improve this STEM approach. For example, STEAM integrates the arts with traditional STEM disciplines to yield innovative ways to communicate science to the general public. This addresses the problem faced by educators confronting the reality that, although STEM disciplines are highly regarded as educational priorities in many countries, these areas may seem scary or inaccessible to many.

“Art and Science” projects, another term used a lot in science museums and centers, especially in Brazil, integrate the arts and sciences by stimulating the senses, developing creativity, honing abilities, and expanding participants’ visions of the world. They also aim to make encounters with STEM disciplines more interesting to both genders.

The Museum of Life (Museu da Vida), the interactive science museum of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), a national health institution located in Rio de Janeiro, employs a variety of diferente approaches to stimulate visitor engagement in science, culture, and social issues: exhibitions, workshops, seminars, courses, publications, and theater.

Theater has been used by Science centers and museums as a communication tool to promote greater involvement with, and engagement of, the public. Shows follow various themes, stimulating the development of particular skills, such as observation, critical understanding, cultural debate, and more.

Theater uses imagination, creation, and innovation to open a door to engagement with science and math. As Museum of Life educator and physicist Paulo Henrique Colonese observes, “Mathematics and the arts can inform and enrich each other.”

The infinite band

Theater Adventure in the Museum of Life combines music and entertainment with scientific inquiry and problem solving in its show, The Big Problem of the Infinite Band. Designed by museum theater staff and other specialists, The Big Problem of the Infinite Band combines mathematics and music in a way that brings math to life and demystifies it. The adventure is designed especially for children from 6 to 10 years old, but teenagers and adults are also welcome.

How can theater demystify math? The main message of the play is that “math is in everything.” Throughout the narrative, the characters discover mathematical calculations used in everyday applications, such as GPS devices and weather forecasts. At one point, the characters engage in a debate about “what is infinite?” Answers include counting grains of sand, stars, miles of highways, and more. One of the characters says: “Infinite is an idea, a way of understanding the universe.” This prompts one of the friends to tell the others: “Our band is infinite because our friendship will never end.”

The concept of the play was created by Leticia Guimaraes, theater director and actress, who manages the Museum of Life’s “Science in a Scene” team. To hone the concept, the team carried out research in four public schools in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro. Roughly 150 students and 20 teachers participated, helping the Science in a Scene team understand the quotidian challenges and major hurdles in the teaching of mathematics in the classroom.

Based on the feedback, the play’s parameters were set: the plot would revolve around mathematics; the audience would be early elementar school; the characters would be children themselves; and there would be a great adventure and a problem to be solved with the help of quizzes and puzzles.

Playwright Rafael Souza-Ribeiro accepted the challenge of writing the initial script. He “set out to write a great adventure, full of characters and fantastic places, twists, discoveries, challenges, and everything with great humor. Humor brings us closer, humanizes us.” The biggest challenge, he said, was writing for young children: “You cannot underestimate the intelligence and sensitivity of children, and you have to keep in mind the contribution to their cultural formation.”

The names of the five characters, a group of children, are inspired by real-life mathematicians: Hypatia of Alexandria, Egypt; Thales of Miletus; Pythagoras of Ancient Greece; Alan Turing of the United Kingdom; and Arthur Avila, a young, modern-day, Brazilian mathematician who won the Fields Medal in 2014, the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

In addition, some issues, such as accessibility and inclusion, are dealt with through the characters: one of them is physically disabled and uses a wheelchair (accessibility); another one is an Afro-Brazilian girl (gender and race); all of them are musicians who play in a band (not typical Science characters). Together, this group of friends has to travel through outer space, forests, and oceans, solving many quizzes and puzzles, to solve a “big problem” and make it to their concert performance.

The talented production staff spent many hours getting the details right. The costume designer’s challenge was to create costumes based on the corresponding historical characters and their respective research in the field of mathematics. The set designer created abstract environments through which the “Infinite Band” journeys. The lighting director used a wide variety of techniques to simulate very diferente settings, including the band’s trip to space, the forest, deep sea, and other situations.

A highlight of the play is the use of music to advance the story. Brazil is known worldwide for its diversity of cultures and musical rhythms. Five musical genres, originating in different regions of Brazil, are used in the play: “Milonga” (from Rio Grande do Sul in the South); “Carimbó” (from Pará in the North); “Moda de Viola” (Viola Mode, from Mato Grosso in the Center-West); “Coco” (from Pernambuco in the Northeast); and a “Carnival march” (from Rio de Janeiro in the Southwest).

The traditional Milonga music is characterized by a slow tempo, with either four or two beats per measure, and a restrained tonality, which gives a feeling of melancholy. The “Carimbó” is considered one of the most remarkable Brazilian rhythms, originating from old Afro-descendent influences. The name comes from the drums used in its practice, “curimbó.” Coco music, a mix of African, Indigenous, and Portuguese influences, is very bouncy and typically accompanies women dancing and spinning with round skirts. Viola Modes are usually sung in two voices, with a third musical interval and viola accompaniment. Finally, the Carnival March musical style descends directly from the popular Portuguese marches, sharing with them simple and lively melodies and spicy lyrics. Children in the audience can participate by beating the rhythms in the palms of their hands. After all, there is a lot of math in music.

Math for all

Mathematical competence helps children and adults understand the world better, exercise their rights as citizens, and act as autonomous beings. It is expected that this play will raise a debate about prejudices toward mathematics (such as “math is very difficult” or “math is not for everyone”). As theatrical experience has the power to motivate and open minds, this production will raise children’s awareness of the many ways math already exists in their daily lives.

Because of its location, near the poor suburbs of Rio de Janeiro, the museum serves many schools in low-income neighborhoods, in addition to private schools from other areas of town. Plays and other activities at the museum are free, and for many children, this is their first experience attending a live performance. It is hoped that these performances and activities will positively dispose young students toward mathematics, especially those children from poor communities who have little access to educational and cultural opportunities.

* Denise Studart (denise.studart@fiocruz.br) is a researcher in visitor studies and evaluations; Paulo Colonese is an educator and physicist; and Leticia Guimarães is stage director at Museu da Vida (Museum of Life), Casa de Oswaldo Cruz, in Fiocruz, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Originally published in the November/December 2018 issue of "Dimensions magazine". Used with the permission of the Association of Science-Technology Centers / ASTC.


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