‘Fun’ with ‘math’

Museums are trying to make “math” “fun,” writes Katharine Beals, using quotes advisedly, on Out in Left Field.

Math has an image problem, explains Ed Week, which shows students dancing on the light-activated Math Square at the Museum of Mathematics in New York. Math is “often seen as hard, abstract—even pointless.”  The museum hopes to convince kids that math 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.”

MoMath activities include dancing in front of screens that illustrate fractals, riding an oversize tricycle with square wheels on a bumpy track and putting together a large, colorful foam tetraxis geometric structure.

The Geometry Playground at the Exploratorium in San Francisco features giant mathematical climbing structures to help students understand 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 Design Zone at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Math Moves exhibit also try to make math fun, active and creative.

Beals is a skeptic about “playground math,” she writes in a follow-up. “It seems to me that the best way to make math fun is . . . to help them master the rote aspects of arithmetic as quickly and efficiently as possible so they can move on” to solving interesting problems. She includes a KenKen math puzzle.

Math is abstract, isn’t it?


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  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    Math is abstract but arithmetic isn’t. And some abstract math has very unabstract analogs. “12 – X = 7″ is homologous to “I started with 12 CDs and wound up with 7. How many were taken away?”

    And, of course, some spatial stuff is very concrete.

    The majority of people can do the pretty concrete stuff but have major problems when they reach a certain level of abstraction. I question how much is gained by trying to get everyone to that level.

    (And doesn’t it sound impressive to say “homologous” rather than “similar”?)

  2. I think attempts to make math “fun” will be a huge turn-off for kids who like and do well at math. My kids certainly would have hated this – and the least ‘mathy’ one tutored her freshman, pre-med roommate through calculus, even though she had AP’d out of the class.

    It sounds like another in a long series of “reforms” designed to make less able and/or less motivated kids do better. The fact that most similar efforts have been big turn-offs for many of the most able and/or motivated kids isn’t even mentioned – and was probably not even considered.

    • The fact that most similar efforts have been big turn-offs for many of the most able and/or motivated kids isn’t even mentioned – and was probably not even considered.

      If it was considered, it was probably counted in its favor.  Anything to shrink “the gap” and create a more equal (even if poorer and more miserable) society.

      • Two ways to shrink any gap – raise the floor or lower the ceiling – the latter being the easier.

        Life without geometry would be pointless!

        • Mark Roulo says:

          “Life without geometry would be pointless!”
          Not as long as there are mortgages :-)