What do you get when you cross a Ph.D. mathematics educator/content developer who won every local Science Olympiad as a kid with a Los Angeles-based voiceover artist who is a self-professed “professional nerd?”
That may sound like the setup to a punchline, but it’s not. In fact, the answer is quite serious. What you get, when you add in the creative efforts of numerous others working at Cetati Studios, is a fresh, innovative and interactive way to reach kids and teach them math.
Dr. Maria Droujkova and Bonnie Gordon, the respective math professional and voice artist, are a study in contrasts. Droujkova is a Senior Math Writer and Gordon literally gives voice to the words that she writes.
Droujkova founded Natural Math, a company/community dedicated to reinventing how math is taught and is working on her third book.
Gordon has done voiceover work for numerous video games and TV shows and with a good friend records/performs as The Library Bards who do Weird Al-style parody songs and slather them with nerdiness.
There are some points of crossover. Droujkova graduated from Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana which happens to be Gordon’s home state.
Though the two have never met and live 3,000 miles from each other—Droujkova in North Carolina and Gordon in Los Angeles—they are nonetheless integral parts of the Cetati Studios team.
“I write pieces that will be brought to life by the wonderful art people. The things I write have to be precise, engaging, interesting and understandable by young children. So we cannot include things that are beyond a five-year-old’s world,” Droujkova said.
Precision of a different kind is what Gordon has to implement on her end.
“In voiceovers, you only have your voice to convey the acting. It’s a lot harder than people realize. Being able to “do voices” is only a part of it. You can have the best range of voices in the world, yet be a horrible voiceover actor if you can’t put the acting behind the voice,” Gordon said. “With this project, I make sure that the voices are easy to understand for young children. I don’t want them to misunderstand the problem because they don’t understand what the character I’m voicing is saying. I’m trying to make the characters entertaining and articulate. That’s especially important for the younger kids because they’re still learning the English language!”
The magic of Cetati Studios’ creations—having children learn mathematics concepts and consequently life-applicable skills like reasoning and problem-solving while immersed in adventure games—necessitates buy-in. Droujkova cultivates that crucial element in numerous ways.
“Some of the sentences have multiple choice questions and one of the things I’m trying to do is make them emotional. Problems like ‘what is ten plus five’ or ‘what is five plus two’ can be very neutral emotionally. What I try to do is put in emotion like ‘why do we care what three plus two is?’ Or ‘one person has 10 items, but another has seven–who has more?’ Then the artists can make the characters look at each other with some challenge and students start to care about the situation,” Droujkova said. “I also make a point to include active verbs. Instead of ‘the pizza was cut in half’ we say ‘Maddy cut her pizza in half’ so now it’s somebody doing something. Kids can imagine themselves doing it and that wakes up their neurons. Another is to bring a little more reasoning and problem-solving into it. Such as ‘Maddy colored more than half the card and Dobie covered more than half the card with stickers’ so that tells us that they must overlap.”
After Hurricane Katrina ravished her native Louisiana, Bonnie Gordon moved to Florida and worked at Disney World for a year. She then moved to Las Vegas.
“Because of my musical theatre background, I always did a lot of wacky characters and wacky voices. Doing music helped me control my pitch, my range, and breathing and all that has helped with doing voiceovers,” Gordon said.
Taking care of her natural instrument is obviously important, but Gordon also employs technology like audio recording programs where she has become adept at the art of capturing and editing her vocal creations so they sound more professional.
While Gordon is passionate about the trailblazing educational direction Cetati Studios is headed, her passion is tinged with a hint of irony.
“I’m not going to lie, math has never been my strongest subject. Luckily the math we’ve been working on so far is for kindergarten through third grade, so at least I understand what I’m saying when doing voiceovers. What I’m nervous about is when we get into the later grades and the math curriculum gets a bit more complicated. So far it’s been great,” Gordon said.
Droujkova actually went to art school for four years in her teens and has empathy for those who suffer from what she calls math anxiety and has much love for her co-workers.
“I want to hug them and cheer them on as they work on this project. I don’t work professionally in any visual arts, but I like to use a lot of motion arts methods in teaching children and adults math,” Droujkova said. “I believe that mathematics and arts have similar values. They give us points of view that reveal some deep truths about the world and methods for looking at the world differently. So artists and mathematicians unite!”