This might be a simple one… the answer is seven, representing the seven seas and seven continents. The single torch represents unity. The date on the book is the birthdate of the United States. So collectively, the symbols tell the story of people from all around the world coming together to the United States – immigration. But this is just one of many stories that Dr. Rebecca Klemm gets excited about telling children and adults as part of NumbersAlive!, a small business she started quite by accident in 2011 at the age of 61.
Forty years prior, Dr. Klemm was a junior in college preparing to teach math. She secured a position teaching 9th grade while still in her final year as an undergraduate. At the end of that year, she was admitted to the PhD program in Statistics at Iowa State University.
While finishing up her dissertation, she again was offered a teaching position, this time teaching math at a middle school in Des Moines, Iowa. The School District Math Coordinator remembered her as “Becky with the Braids” from a national School Math Study Group when Klemm was in 6th grade in Eugene, Oregon. Before she officially accepted the job, she told them that that she would only take it if she could teach math through storytelling based on life activities: applying for jobs, receiving payroll via checks with payroll deduction, filing Federal taxes and budgeting daily expenses such as rent and utilities.
“I said, ‘I need to show the relevance of the numbers. It’s so much more meaningful and interesting if you start with a situation and figure out ways to respond, than starting out with a problem with no relevance. I can’t just ask kids to memorize things without meaning.”
Klemm stayed at the middle school for two years forging a new path in their math program, and, upon receipt of her PhD, she accepted a teaching position in the School of Business at Temple University. Parents from the middle school tried to convince her to stay, saying it was the first time their children felt they understood math. But she had seen her idea work and was ready for a different challenge. She stayed at Temple University for two years, before moving to Washington, DC to participate in a one-year program with the US Department of Energy. At the conclusion of the year, she decided to stay in Washington and join the faculty of Georgetown University’s Business School. No matter the age of the students, she loved teaching. “I’m a teacher in my bones,” she says.
Four years later, after receiving the Decision Sciences Award for teaching quantitative subjects in Business Schools, the young professor saw another career opportunity approaching and took leave of formal teaching. Bringing statistics expertise into liability cases was a burgeoning field. Dr. Klemm had been called several times to serve as an expert witness, so she figured why not make it official. After a short stint with another small firm, she launched Klemm Analysis Group, a firm focused on delivering original research to clients around their needs. Unlike methodologists at many firms, Dr. Klemm was the principal investigator on nearly all studies in addition to leading the firm. She still loved diving into the numbers and explaining the cases using visual storytelling.
Klemm Analysis Group buzzed along happily through the eighties and nineties and into the 2000s. And in her spare time, Klemm loved to attend the many theatre performances around town. “I always loved theatre and performance. I consider teaching to be a performance job, so I had always considered myself a performer.”
A performer in the classroom, maybe, but never a director or producer of a stage production, one thing that Klemm was dying to cross off her life bucket list. She wanted to write and produce a musical. “I was not going to die and not have done it.”
In 2010 she decided to go for it. She was already on the board of the Capital Fringe Festival, so she knew the possibilities for aspiring writers and performers of contemporary theatre pieces. Klemm wrote 15 sketches in the span of one month about the idea of numbers talking about their lives around the world, acted out by puppet numbers. The numbers had big personalities, they lived global, artistic lives, knew their history and their literature and told great stories though music and dialogue.
When the show, “Cookin’ Up Numbers” premiered, Klemm also developed a Powerpoint presentation to accompany the performance. After all, this was the fringe festival and all rules were off. The slides added interesting facts about the numbers while they were “acting” on stage. For instance, every time the character “3” came up, a pyramid appeared on screen, and the audience could hear the sound of “Three Blind Mice” in the background. As images of the number 3 in different instances around the world appeared, Klemm’s goal was for the audience to make the connection to the number as a character in a bigger story – that numbers have a lot of history and meaning in our lives.
At the end of each of the five performances, people came up to Klemm, saying how much they loved it and asked if she could do something like that for younger children so they wouldn’t hate math so much.
“That was the birth of NumbersAlive!,” says Dr. Klemm.
Instead of a one-off musical, a long-term business was born. Investing only her own money, Dr. Klemm trademarked the name NumbersAlive! and the design of her number characters and launched her first product: plush number characters 0–9 in a backpack. Each number comes with a bio based on the number’s real applications in art, history, nature, sports, and cultures around the world. The number seven, for instance, talks about the seven stages of man from Shakespeare and the Seven Wonders of the World.
Her stories and physical products have been tested with Boys and Girls Clubs in Washington, DC and she began performing in costume as The Numbers Lady at festivals and schools. After self-publishing a children’s book using the number characters, Klemm was selected as a featured author in the 2012 Science and Engineering Festival.
Over the next two years – and while still running her research firm to bring in funding – she continued to develop content and products. Attending toy industry events put her in touch with manufacturers, while teacher conferences and public festivals allowed her to find teachers and parents who were enthusiastic about her innovative approach to STEM/STEAM education for young children. Sales grew through word-of-mouth, and she ordered an entire container of the small plush numbers to be produced.
Klemm loves fulfilling the entrepreneurial and performance side of her dreams, but the heart of NumbersAlive! is really her passion for teaching children the joy of numbers. “It gives children a foundation not only in math but in literacy and global citizenship. People have told me it’s a fascinating way to look at math, but for me it’s the only way to look at math. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone learned about math with meaning from the get-go? If my stories give children a passion for learning, I’ve succeeded.”
See the Numbers Lady in action on YouTube.
- Follow your passion, regardless of your age.
- Never lose curiosity!
- Find collaborators and others who help guide you.
- Doing a business is a lot harder than teaching about it.