New Hands-On Math Exhibit Begins Tour at Smithsonian

By Erik W. Robelen — March 08, 2012 3 min read
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All those school groups making the pilgrimage to Washington this spring will have a chance to experience hands-on math learning through an exhibit opening this weekend at the Smithsonian International Gallery.

MathAlive! is designed to explore the math behind activities such as video games, sports, robotics, music, and even fashion. The primary target audience is middle school students. Although math is the main focus, visitors will also get a dose of the other disciplines in the popular STEM acronym, namely science, technology, and engineering.

The 5,000-square-foot exhibit, sponsored by Raytheon Co., is being housed in the Smithsonian Castle. After three months in the nation’s capital, it goes on what’s expected to be a seven-year tour, with first stops at the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., and the Space Center Houston in Texas.

One of the exhibit’s activities features a virtual-reality snowboarding race.

“What they’re learning about is velocity, angles, speed, and friction, so as they’re doing the virtual race, the math of what they’re doing shows up,” said Pam Wickham, the vice president of corporate affairs and communications for Raytheon.

Another activity allows visitors at a virtual design station to create a skateboard. A third, called Space Walk, allows participants to control the robotic arm movements and camera of a robot operating outside the Space Station.

The new exhibit was designed in collaboration with several partners, including NASA, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the National Society of Professional Engineers, the Society of Women Engineers, and MATHCOUNTS, a competition program for middle schoolers.

To be sure, this is not the first math-focused museum exhibit. When I was conducting research last year about the educational activities of science centers around the country, I was struck by a number of exhibits targeting that subject. For example, several science centers and museums have collaborated to develop a series of traveling math exhibits with support from the National Science Foundation, including Math Moves!. The exhibit, which focuses on ratio and proportion, is part of a three-year national study to explore the idea that science centers can help children prepare for algebra.

(To learn more about the wide range of activities science centers are up to in promoting STEM learning, check out this EdWeek story from last April.)

Meanwhile, what’s being billed as the nation’s only math museum will open this year in New York City.

Raytheon’s work in math education, and STEM more broadly, goes back a number of years, said Ms. Wickham. The math exhibit is part of a broader initiative dating back about six years aimed at increasing students’ interest in math and science education.

The company, a leading aerospace and defense contractor, has a keen interest in building the pipeline of young people graduating from college with STEM expertise, she said.

“We really took a look at how do we boost that pipeline, and the real opportunity was in middle school, because most young students love math and science, right up until middle school, when it becomes harder and ... it’s not as cool to be into math and science,” she said. “We’re trying to demonstrate to students that it is cool—math, science, and engineering. You wouldn’t have your iPod without an engineer. You couldn’t ride a roller coaster without math.”

Earlier today, I blogged about a new poll Raytheon commissioned that offers a window into what middle school students think about math and how they like to learn it.

Wickham notes that the idea for MathAlive! was inspired in part by an exhibit Raytheon developed in collaboration with Disney. The Sum of All Thrills exhibit at the Epcot Center in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., in which guests custom design their own thrill ride using STEM principles.

Photo: Students test their virtual snowboarding skills at the MathAlive! exhibit. Image provided by Raytheon Co.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.