Museum of Mathematics Hopes to Inspire, Promote Math Education
A year ago mathematician Glen Whitney, in an informed and heartfelt op-ed for Newsday pointed to but also explained the continuing poor performance of New York State school children on standardized exams. Central to his theme of reforming not curricula but attitudes, of generating motivation that would translate into the “thrill” of exploring mathematics and an appreciation of the aesthetics of patterns, numbers and shapes, was his proposal “to create cultural institutions” that could “help people rediscover the beauty, relevance and excitement of mathematics.”
Now, one year later, his dream to realize one such place is a mere months away from opening, a place not only for students but for adults, including math teachers and, arguably even more significant, for prospective teachers, to be found among those starting to visit the Museum of Mathematics next year. Whitney, the executive director of the museum, mentions Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at The Rose Center for Earth and Space, who has cited the “life-altering” exhibits at the Museum of Natural History when he was a child for turning him on to astronomy.
A Live Auction is in the works before the museum officially opens. There will be two offerings: an in-person tour with Whitney of MoMath’s space with a “sneak preview” at some of the exhibits, and an in-person tour of George Hart’s sculptures (Escher is wonderful but Hart is 3-D!). And stay tuned for the Inside-Outside Maze contest, a design competition open to students around the country that will link winners at a distance with kids at the museum trying to work / walk it out. What challenge, what fun.
Proposed fees: $15 for adults, $9 for children and special rates for visiting classes. A no-fee lobby exhibit will also be available as enticement.
Location was important, says Cindy Lawrence, chief of operations at MoMath. Museums can be expensive — entrances fees plus the cost of having lunch somewhere prohibitive. But MoMath faces a park, so families can bring lunch from home for a picnic. The site, located at 11 E. 26th St. between 5th and Madison avenues, is also readily accessible by public transportation.
When it opens early in 2012, MoMath will be the first such museum in the country. Though institutions such as The New York Hall of Science in Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, N.Y., The Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, N.J., and the Exploratorium in San Francisco have spaces devoted to math, these areas tend to be supplements to exhibits on the scientific disciplines — biology, chemistry, physics, Whitney says. He adds that in most cases the math in these science centers is not up to date in content or as cutting-edge technology or, even more important, as engaging as it could be. Many so-called interactive exhibits are behind glass. To Whitney, “interactive” means “beyond the glass cases,” touching, involving hands and body.” Yes, virtual museums have important roles to play but real sites trump Web sites. The most attractive feature of the traveling Discovery Center-Math Midway, he notes, has proved to be an exhibit of a square-wheeled tricycle! Kids want to feel it, try it, figure it out.
It’s not enough to present math as useful, Whitney says, though showing how real-world applications are at their heart mathematical — new routing arrangements for phones, analyzing extractions of shale — helps demystify math, but telling students to use a quadratic equation, for example, means little if there is no explanation about why the equation works, or why the equation is “beautiful.” Indeed, the fact that mathematics was one of the seven liberal arts helps remind people of its connection to form, not formula. In this regard, Whitney notes that non-mathematicians are important in conveying what he and Lawrence call the “mathy” quality of their endeavors — as can be seen in the spectacular geometric sculptures of George Hart, who has become chief of content at MoMath.
It’s unfortunate that there is so little quality math teaching in the nation, and particularly in the lower grades. Elementary teachers, it’s been shown, often choose this field because it requires little in the way of mathematical achievement. Whitney hopes MoMath will counter this tendency. As such, revising math curricula or shuffling the sequence of topics — algebra, geometry, trig, calculus — is less important than understanding the reasons why concepts and formulas work — learning, for example, that gauging the path of a billiard ball on a diagonally designed table depends upon coordinates.
Yes, Whitney recognizes the uphill battle in trying to convince parents that the kind of education MoMath would provide in exhibits and as suggested pre- and post-visit classroom activities is as valuable as are the demands of standardized testing, but he hopes that MoMath will be significant in establishing a mathematical culture. #