Math Goes Hollywood

Cetati is tapping into the creativity of veteran artists and storytellers to deliver the missing-link of math education. Learn how our idea sprouted to deliver rigorous and engaging educational content.

For many American students, the memory of math class is one of sheer torture. Sheets of paper with rows and rows of problems to solve caused anxiety, depression and often perpetuated self-fulfilling prophecies of failure. 

Math instruction that relies on memorizing and retrieving rules and formulas learned by rote can result in passing texts, but does it promote higher order learning and the resultant problem-solving skills that can be translated to everyday life?

What if there was a way to deliver math content that was not only engaging, fun and filled with rigorous mathematics content that students could (and would want to) interact with outside of class time that helped sculpt those skills?

Well now there is.

Cetati Studios features unique digital math products created by an experienced and talented team of professionals from two different spheres–mathematics instruction/mathematics product creation and Hollywood-level (we’re talking Disney, Pixar, etc.) animated storytellers.

Edward Manfre has been in the field of mathematics education and related product development for over 40 years. A New York native, he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in physics from The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in 1969 and a Master of Science degree from Boston University in 1976.

Manfre, with CEO Brian Lovrin, is the co-founder of Emeryville, California-based Cetati Studios and heads a team that includes Senior Content Developers Judy Vandegrift and Dr. Maria Droujkova. The artistic side of the company is headed by a team of veterans including Lead Illustrator Michael Blackmon II.

“With some products the math instruction is there, but the engagement is lacking. Or they are very entertaining, but the math is not rigorous or useful enough. The real challenge is how do you teach math, or any content area, within a story and make it authentic, rigorous, useful and engaging?” Manfre said. “We aid the presentation of our content by using Hollywood-level animators, illustrators, story writers and artists. That way kids are getting something they are really comfortable with and they learn naturally.”

The word “cetati” is derived from a Sanskrit word that basically means “to understand.” That, in a nutshell, is what the mission of the team of professionals from different fields have banded together to achieve.

Senior Content Writer Judy Vandegrift grew up in Southern California and earned a BA in mathematics and a MA in education from UCLA as well as a MBA from Boston University. She has been a leader in developing mathematics content for decades.

“When people tell me they were never good at math, it’s usually because of negative experiences they had at school. They didn’t have a math program that emphasized understanding. It was more about memorizing a bunch of things that didn’t make sense to them—which is very hard to do,” Vandegrift said. “What I have tried to do with all the products I’ve developed is make them as engaging as I can and also have the accompanying activities be purposeful. That way kids aren’t just doing a row of multiplication problems, but something that is working towards a goal. When it’s purposeful and engaging they get into it.”

If students do not understand the basic language of math at a young age and then are later bombarded with rote rules to learn and memorize, they often fall behind and never catch up.

“Years ago I was teaching remedial math at a community college in Albuquerque, New Mexico and I asked the class ‘Which is bigger, one-third or three-fifths?’ Some of the students would reach for a pencil and paper, others would reach for a calculator or just guess, but they didn’t have a clear picture in their minds,” Manfre said. “I was trying to get them ready for college algebra and they didn’t have the simple visualizations of basic ideas in math.”

Manfre searched online for something that his students could use outside of class to help them understand and relate to the terms he used, but was unsuccessful. Then he had a revelation.

“We don’t learn language by learning grammar. When kids go to kindergarten they speak grammatical sentences without ever having learned the rules of grammar. They didn’t take any tests or study and memorize rules. They learned how to speak because they were immersed in it naturally. It took me about three semesters to realize that I needed to emulate how we teach and learn foreign languages. If you’ve ever used Babbel or Rosetta Stone, you can learn how to speak a foreign language just by clicking on pictures.”

Cetati Studios’ approach is to use engaging stories delivered by captivating 2D animation that introduces students to the language of math in a natural, compelling way and then reinforces it with interactive adventure games. The goal is not just to learn concepts, phrases and rules, but to spark higher order learning that involves critical thinking, problem-solving and that has real world applications.

The engaging animation is the hook and for Hayward, California native and Cetati Studios’ Lead Illustrator Michael Blackmon II, that is right in his wheelhouse. After graduating from the University of San Diego with a BA in visual communications, he went to work for Pixar and some of the illustration work he created includes pieces at Pixar Park at the Disneyland’s California Adventure and at Shanghai Disneyland. He is thrilled to be part of a team that is merging disparate talents into something greater than the sum of its parts.

Cetati Studios’ unique synthesis of math experts fusing instruction with interactive stories/adventures animated by creative illustrators is both meaningful to Blackmon and…a little ironic.

“Math is not really my thing at all—I’m definitely not a math person. I can relate to a quote from Picasso: ‘When I see the number 7, all I see is an upside-down nose,'” Blackmon said. “Now, I’m certainly not denigrating Pixar at all, but while what they create there is fun, funny and entertaining, I wanted to do something on a deeper level that is more meaningful. It’s fun to be able to contribute as much as I can to what we do here.”

Cetati Studios’ innovative products are the result of storytellers, illustrators, animators, voice actors, and mathematics instructors/content developers pooling their talents to create programs that can truly change children’s lives forever.