Ryan Longdon: Working both sides of the brain
University of Montana student combines theater, math degrees
MONTANA LIVING – A week before graduation, University of Montana senior Ryan Longdon was busy studying for his math final in "partial differential equations."
University of Montana math and theater graduate Ryan Longdon found critical analysis and creativity key to his fields of study. He used both disciplines to build human-sized icosahedrons for UM dance students.
For some people that term "partial differential equations" might strike terror, but not for Longdon – his final projects in theater was causing greater consternation.
“Math comes more naturally for me, it’s been the entirety of my education,” Longdon said. “Theater requires more thought and planning.”
Longdon, a native of East Helena, has had an affinity for math since the second grade, crediting a teacher for making the subject “a lot of fun.” But while taking Advanced Placement courses at Helena High School, where he passed college-level calculus exams, Longdon became involved in the school’s theater and discovered a new love: the stage.
After enrolling at Montana State University in civil engineering, Longdon learned from a friend about the theater program at UM. Feeling unfilled in his studies at MSU, the pitch was too good and the theater bug too strong for Longdon to ignore. He moved to Missoula in 2018 and enrolled in math and theater as double majors
“It was the best decision I ever made,” he said.
While these two areas of study may seem diametrically opposed, Longdon said critical analysis and creativity play into both math and theater, and that he is constantly drawing from skills needed in both fields.
Associate Professor Matt Roscoe saw Longdon’s ability to marry both disciplines while teaching Euclidean and Non-Euclidean Geometry in the fall of 2020.
“He was excellent at building dynamic models of geometry settings using technology,” Roscoe said. “His models were among the best in the course.”
Longdon’s skills came to the fore last fall when the UM theater shop was asked to build a set of “human-sized icosahedrons” for use in dance courses taught by Visiting Assistant Professor Brooklyn Draper. After building a proof-of-concept model, Longdon constructed the two, 20-sided figures out of 20 identically constructed equilateral triangles. Pine, a lot of glue and plenty of geometrical equations went into the construction and Draper’s students went on to dance inside the figures to learn about body connectivity, spatial awareness and creativity.
“Students had very different reactions to the icosahedron,” Draper said. “Some found the structure freeing and an exciting avenue for creativity and body connectivity. Others found it limiting and challenging to stand inside of the structures. I always find these drastic reactions fascinating. There is value in both of these reactions and a lot to be learned within their complexities.”
The project, and its success in helping other students in their studies, makes Longdon unique among UM mathematics majors, Roscoe said.
“Our students regularly apply mathematics to the world, but few actually use mathematics to create a new physical object in the world,” he added. “Ryan’s work at UM is indicative of the kinds of opportunities that are available to students here to unite two seemingly disparate interests, math and theater, in the creation of something awe-inspiring and wonderful.”
While still contemplating his future, Longdon credits UM for giving him confidence in his ability to succeed whether crunching numbers or building a new set design.
“It is nice to be somewhere where people are excited about what you are excited about,” he says. “That you aren’t alone in your excitement.”
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