When you think of improv, images of college comedy nights and acting classes might come to mind. Yet thanks to a collaboration between a Baltimore nonprofit and a Pittsburgh startup, some students are witnessing their teachers improv in a place you’d least expect: math class.
Zoom in on Expii, a Carnegie Mellon University professor-founded company that offers a catalog of courses ranging from algebra to bio. The world has its share of mathphobes (hi), and despite having always excelled in the subject as a former mathlete himself, Expii founder and CEO Po-Shen Loh can acknowledge that many of the resources struggling students seek out can be dull and impersonal.
Where Expii classes differ from YouTube, Loh told Technical.ly in January, is that instead of watching a pre-recorded lesson, middle and high schoolers are being taught by math whizzes who can respond to questions and provide feedback in real time.
“We have a new way of dynamically teaching where there’s two very smart, very interesting people doing improv comedy-style [instruction], and they turn math class into something that’s extremely lively,” Loh said. Classes are “guided by people who really know their stuff.”
To teach an Expii course on a livestream, you need to be well-versed in more than just the Pythagorean theorem. That’s where Highwire Improv comes in. Five hours away in Baltimore, the improv comedy group hops on Zoom to teach Expii’s teenage tutors the ins and out of improv.
Cofounder Barry Wright’s day job is product manager for Spotify, where he spends a good chunk of his time solving issues related to copyright and global policy. With a group of friends, he started the group about two years ago after realizing that improv provided a needed creative outlet for his life. He wanted to pay that feeling forward.
The nonprofit regularly hosts comedy shows and offers improv workshops to companies and other organizations. When Expii’s leaders approached them to assist in helping its teachers find ways to make learning math fun, Wright said it was a great opportunity to merge the arts with a very technical subject.
“A lot of fun of improv comes from finding unexpected connections and lateral thinking and these kids and teens are exceptional at that,” Wright said. “It’s very much a similar skill as finding patterns in mathematics, they’re just applying those same skills they have to comedy and communication, which is really cool to see.”
Having a math degree himself, Wright added that he felt uniquely qualified to help the students develop a creative way to explain mathematical concepts. And since Highwire Improv came to be when many COVID restrictions were in place, an added bonus was that the group had no qualms about teaching via Zoom.
“We’re both really excited to try new things and see how we could adapt to a difficult situation with COVID into an opportunity rather than a restriction and then see if we could do that together,” Wright said. “So it was a kind of natural fit from day one.”
For Expii’s part, Loh said recruiting the likes of the Highwire Improv group allowed 100 students teaching the courses to not only learn effective teaching strategies, but also become more well rounded. Wright was happy to report that many of the students they’ve worked with during the partnership had requested more classes and said they could see incorporating improv into their careers down the line.
“It’s opened up their eyes in a lot of ways to a wider set of possibilities for people who have technical and scientific skills,” Wright said.
Currently, prior to teaching an Expii course, a participant must undergo a four-week course with Highwire Improv. In part due to the positive response they’ve gotten, Wright said he’s looking forward to not only continuing the partnership with Expii, but scaling the program to include more students.
“Realizing that we had somebody really interested in a thing that they wouldn’t have signed up for on their own was enlightening,” Wright said. “People were super excited about it, we’ve had about a quarter of the students go on and do a second or third level of training with us.”Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.
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