Museums Open Doors to Informal Math Learning

By Caralee J. Adams — June 04, 2013 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 10 min read
Math Fever: From left, Luna Rodriguez, Sabrina Vulpio, and Justin Burgher, 7th graders at PS 232, dance on the light-activated Math Square at the Museum of Mathematics in New York. MoMath and other museums are trying to make the subject enjoyable.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story misspelled two names. J. Shipley Newlin Jr. is the director of physical sciences, engineering, and math at the museum; Justin Burgher is a 7th grader who visited the museum.

Math has a bit of an image problem. It’s often seen as hard, abstract—even pointless.

The creators of the National Museum of Mathematics in New York City are all about turning that image around and convincing young people that mathematics is cool.

“Changing perceptions is our goal,” said Cindy Lawrence, the co-executive director of MoMath, as it’s quickly become known. “From the minute people walk in the door, we try to highlight the creative side of math: that it’s colorful, it’s beautiful, it’s exploratory, fun and engaging. None of these are words people typically associate with math.”

Such efforts are not just happening at MoMath, which opened in Manhattan on the mathematically hip date of 12/12/12.

Although it’s the only museum entirely devoted to the subject in North America, curators of math exhibits at science centers across the country are also inviting the public in to experience math in a hands-on, fun way.

They want people to see that it’s about thinking and discovery, rather than rote memorization. And far from irrelevant, math is everywhere—from highway design to musical composition to roller coaster construction.

Christian Montalvo, a 12-year-old student at PS 232, pedals an oversize square-wheeled tricycle around a bumpy track at the Museum of Mathematics in New York City.

As educators and policymakers push to cultivate the nation’s math and science talent, the museums provide a timely opportunity to inspire students in those challenging subjects in informal, engaging ways. As higher math standards roll out as part of the Common Core State Standards, educators are eager for creative ways to deepen students’ understanding of math.

Making Connections?

Jonathan Ostrow took 66 7th graders from PS 232 in Queens on a field trip to MoMath last month. In his classroom, Mr. Ostrow tries to help students make connections with math, mentioning careers where it is needed and using objects like Play-Doh for hands-on learning. But it’s a struggle.

“Outside of money, they don’t see math as anything,” he said.

Inside the 20,000-square-foot, two-story museum, he watches his students bounce to and from its 30 exhibits, dancing in front of screens that illustrate fractals and riding an oversize tricycle with square wheels on a bumpy track.

“They are interested,” he said. “But I’m not sure they understand what everything is for.”

The museum is responding to feedback from visitors who have said, “Wow, this is wonderful, but I don’t see how this is math,” said Ms. Lawrence, who directed a program for gifted math students before she was recruited to help launch the museum by Glen Whitney, a former hedge-fund analyst and now the president and co-executive director of MoMath.

The focus at first was to create the most engaging exhibits, but it was difficult to decide how much detail and what level of explanation to provide. Museum educators have come up with touch screens next to some exhibits with information from basic to in-depth.

The museum was designed to spark an interest in learning, but not necessarily to directly raise test scores, added Ms. Lawrence.

“Just the fact that a kid might come into a place that says math on the front door and have fun, in my mind, that’s score one,” she said. “There is now an association with math and something fun.”

In an exhibit about efficiency, 12-year-old Seeanna Mahabir is trying to fit various shapes into the smallest boundary on a brightly lit table. After her turn, the computer screen flashes: “Congrats, you set today’s record!”

Seeanna said she didn’t know what to expect at the museum: “I thought we’d read theories of people who came up with the square root of two, and it would be more history, but it’s hands-on.”

Visitors to MoMath enter through doors whose pull is formed in the shape of the symbol pi.

Cultural Problem

MoMath was the brainchild of Mr. Whitney, who was disappointed when the Goudreau Museum of Mathematics in Art and Science closed on New York’s Long Island a few years ago. He wanted to create something bigger in Manhattan to get people to think about math in new ways.

“This country has a national, cultural problem with its view and attitude toward mathematics and the role it plays in our culture, so we needed a national, cultural institution to face that head-on,” Mr. Whitney said.

Math educators are eager to join in the effort. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics is working with MoMath on a public-image campaign designed to excite older elementary and middle school students about math, said Linda Gojak, the president of the NCTM. “We want them to see the importance of math and its connection to their future opportunities.”

She applauds various museums’ attempts to hook children with fun math exhibits, but said more can be done to link the activities with math concepts and what’s happening in the classroom. Math teachers have been useful consultants to many projects and have asked relevant questions about making the experience stick, rather than just play for students, said Ms. Gojak, who also directs the Center of Mathematics and Science Education, Teaching, and Technology at John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio.

At MoMath, 7th grader Justin Burgher tries to put together a large, colorful foam tetraxis geometric structure with his friends. Some girls come by and interrupt: “Say cheese!” Justin smiles and poses for a picture next to his creation.

What does he think of math? “It’s a fun subject. It’s fun, once you get it,” he added. “If I have a career in math, I’d be a code breaker for the CIA. It would be very tricky, but cool.”

Cryptography and knot theory are taught by MoMath educators such as Lynn Cartwright-Punnett in 45-minute sessions that often kick off the visits.

“The topics we have chosen are ones that they wouldn’t be exposed to in the K-12 curriculum,” she said. “They are advanced college topics and an opportunity to see what you’d do with math if you are a professional.”

While the exhibits at MoMath weren’t created around the common-core math standards, many do cover the concepts, and educators are developing post-visit packets for teachers to use in the classroom to build stronger links to the schoolwork.

Jason Pelletier, 18, of Fort Ann Central High School in Fort Ann, N.Y., stands in the path of a laser light at the Wall of Fire.

Informal learning at museums can be an effective classroom supplement and fill in parts of math lessons that are not covered in the common core, such as data analysis for K-5 students, said Andee Rubin, a senior scientist with TERC, an education research and development organization in Cambridge, Mass.

“In general, the math that kids encounter in school is often restrictive and, for many kids, it turns out to be a less-than-positive experience,” Ms. Rubin said. Informal encounters with math at museums provide an opportunity to turn those negative feelings around, she said.

It’s an uphill battle to improve math’s reputation, said Ms. Rubin. “People say, ‘I’m bad at math,’ and it’s socially acceptable, even cool. But people wouldn’t say, ‘I’m bad at English.' "

A recent report from the Washington-based National Center on Education and the Economy suggests that many new college students don’t have a solid grasp of basic math concepts often taught in middle school. Rather than pushing students to take high levels of math, such as Algebra 2 and calculus, the report proposed that students are better off focusing on the mastery of the fundamentals, including ratio and proportions.

Classroom Prep

Outside New York, science museums have developed dedicated math exhibits with funding from the National Science Foundation in the hope of inspiring young people to think differently about math.

The Exploratorium in San Francisco unveiled the Geometry Playground in 2010. It has giant mathematical structures designed for students ages 7 to 12 to climb on and gain a deeper understanding of spatial reasoning.

“The thrust of the exhibit was to create a whole-body, immersive experience where people are navigating through space,” said Josh Gutwill, the director of visitor research and evaluation at the science museum.

Visitors use 12-sided figures to build structures and try to play hopscotch in front of a curved mirror. While most people think of math as a “cerebral domain,” Mr. Gutwill said students can better understand it through physical, interactive experiences.

The same year that exhibit opened in San Francisco, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry unveiled the Design Zone, with 25 exhibits to engage 10- to 14-year-olds in algebraic thinking. The 6,000-square-foot exhibit has been touring the country and is booked at museums through 2015. “Our field has lots of experience with science, technology, and engineering, but less with facilitating math learning experiences,” said Karyn Bertschi, a senior exhibit developer at the Portland museum. “People think about algebra as a gatekeeper subject. Without success in it, many students are blocked from other opportunities.”

Design Zone creators consulted with disc jockeys, who used math to put together music tracks, as well as video-game designers and others to create real-life examples of math at work. The museum staff looked closely at math standards in algebra developed by the NCTM and incorporated reasoning about patterns and relationships.

To make the exhibits appealing to students’ interests, they consulted with children in the target age group for their feedback.

“We wanted to make sure [visitors] were having fun, learning, and knowing they were using algebra,” Ms. Bertschi said.

Hazal Ozkan, 12, poses for a photo as she spins around in a chair inside the Hyper Hyperboloid at MoMath. The installation gives the impression of being curved, but its lines are actually straight.

Molly Kelton, a doctoral candidate in math education at the University of California, San Diego, studied classes that visited the math exhibits at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

“Teachers really view museum-based math exhibits as pretty powerful enrichment opportunities for their kids,” she said. “They talk about how many resources there are at the museum that they don’t have access to in the classroom.”

The students who got the most out of the experience had extensive classroom previews of the field trip material and follow-up activities, Ms. Kelton said.

“There is a lot of benefit to looking at the curriculum,” she said, “and trying to arrange a trip so it is really integrated into what you are covering in class.”

The Math Moves exhibit at the St. Paul museum involved collaboration with science museums in Boston; Durham, N.C.; and Albuquerque, N.M. It opened last year with activities focusing on ratio and proportion experiences in math through physical movement.

In an exhibit with a bright light shining on a 12-by-12 wall with grids, people can make shadows and measure themselves. Another exhibit involves three chairs, and visitors use tape measures and wooden sticks to compare sizes and volume.

“The idea is that you don’t just learn with your mind and by reading words, but with movement and gestures your body makes,” said J. Shipley Newlin Jr., the director of physical sciences, engineering, and math at the museum.

Mr. Gutwill of the Exploratorium said curators and mathematicians have only scratched the surface when it comes to ways to demonstrate math in museums. “This is like a vein of gold,” he said. “There are so many ideas.”

Funding Sources

While the exhibits have been popular and school groups have reported high levels of engagement, expansion is uncertain. Ms. Rubin of TERC and others worry about funding, with many exhibits using the NSF for support, and that federal agency’s budget for informal education is in flux.

In Minnesota, Mr. Newell has found outside support for math programming from insurance companies and 3M. “Our experience is that corporations like what we are doing with math. It made immediate sense to them,” he said. “People are interested in developing the workforce.”

The public is also responding. The creators of MoMath anticipated about 60,000 visitors in the first year. The museum had that many people through the doors in the first three months. It is fully booked with school groups, with about 15 daily.

Amy Zimmerman heard about MoMath on “CBS This Morning” and organized a field trip for her students from Summit Christian Academy in Clarks Summit, Pa., a two-hour drive from New York City.

“Math is scary for a lot of kids,” said Ms. Zimmerman, who teaches 5th and 6th graders. “It’s a performance subject, and you have to know your stuff to perform.” She said she hopes being at the museum will help students look at the subject in a new way.

“If you understand why math happens, you retain it better.”

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Coverage of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education is supported by a grant from the Noyce Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 2013 edition of Education Week as Museums Open Doors to New Ways of Learning Math


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