Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Harrison Straley

Not just any man could get away with—or would even want to try—wearing a shoulder-length, curly wig, frilly shirt and floral print vest. Of course, Harrison “Chuck” Straley is not just any man. Wheaton’s teaching associate in mathematics and computer science is so into his subject matter that he is more than willing to dress as Sir Isaac Newton to spark interest in math and science.

“My students claim I am crazy, but I think I am just colorful,” said Straley, who is very interested in exploring practical ways to improve school mathematics and instruction at all levels. A few times a year, he is invited to appear as Newton as part of a lecture performance at professional meetings and gatherings for historical and student groups.

He was even invited to write “An Interview with Sir Isaac Newton” for the November issue of Math Horizons, a leading mathematics journal. In the article, the good-humored Straley basically interviews himself—as Newton, of course.

The role-playing all began in the early 1990s when Straley, his wife, Charlene Straley, and his son, Forrest Straley (a professional actor), received a grant to research the conflict between mathematicians Wilhelm Leibniz and Isaac Newton over who first developed calculus. The research led to, among other things, their writing a one-person play, Isaac Newton, A Dramatic Lecture. (When most people think of Newton they picture him sitting under a tree and an apple falling on his head as he comes up with the Universal Law of Gravity.)

The Straleys’ 45-minute play, which delves into Newton’s life and his conflicts, is designed to interest young people in mathematics and science through drama and history. “The dramatization is historically accurate and tries to portray Isaac Newton as a human being.

“Newton is a perfect example of ‘blind luck’ changing the course of human history,” Straley notes. “His father [Isaac Newton Sr.] died before Isaac Jr. was born. Had Isaac’s dad lived, Isaac Jr. would have been brought up to work the farm and would likely not even have learned to read (Isaac’s dad was illiterate) or at most would have learned to read and write at a very basic level. He would likely have been an ignorant, clever, happy, unknown farmer. He would never have gone to Trinity College, and history would have been without Sir Isaac Newton.”

Straley, who in 1989 was honored at the White House for his teaching excellence, has taught most grade levels, from kindergarten to graduate school. While teaching AP calculus he became very interested in the conflict between Leibniz and Newton over who first discovered calculus.

Straley’s own love of math began early in life. His father has an undergraduate degree in math. And Straley recalls playing number and measuring games as a boy, especially during an extended childhood illness when he was 6.

“Math is like a puzzle, you start with only a few pieces and finally you have a great beautiful design,” he said. “I wish I knew how to significantly increase the number of math lovers. I suspect that young people who have unpleasant emotional experiences with math learn to dislike it and those who have pleasant emotional experiences with math learn to like it. The core problem is to minimize the unpleasant experiences with math and increase the pleasant.”

Sir Isaac Newton might just do the trick.