Dec. 13, 2012

MoMath: Exhibits for Ending Math Apathy

by Jon Chang

Click to enlarge images
There are 380 science centers across the United States. Elementary schools routinely schedule field trips to them. Parents take their kids. But if you want to visit a math museum, you’re out of luck.

Glen Whitney wants to change that. Whitney is the founder and executive director of New York City’s Museum of Mathematics, or MoMath. His goal? Create a museum that presents math as more than just numbers and arithmetic.  

“The way math is taught today is like teaching music education by forcing students to learn musical notation, without letting them listen to anything,” Whitney says. “There are beautiful mysteries in mathematics that are waiting to be explored.”

You won’t find a copy of Fermat’s Last Theorem enshrined behind glass at MoMath. It’s a children’s museum, where “look, don’t touch” is tossed out the window. Younger kids can play with the Marble Multiplier (see below), a device that looks like a gigantic game of Perfection to visualize what multiplication means. Older kids (and adults) can learn why circles, ellipses and hyperbolas are referred to as conic sections by using a laser to slice cones at different angles.  
While MoMath’s hands-on exhibits may get kids excited about math for the day, Cindy Lawrence, the museum’s associate director, wants that excitement to stick with them for the rest of their lives. She suggests that math isn’t just an interesting hobby--it’s a lucrative career. “The biggest employer of mathematicians in the United States is the National Security Agency. There aren’t enough qualified people to fill the available positions. It’s the same for companies like Microsoft and Raytheon,” Lawrence says.

Many politicians, including President Obama, have pledged to make STEM education a priority. Books like Steven Strogatz’s Joy of X show that math can be both accessible and interesting. Lawrence believes that both education and entertainment should work together to improve STEM education in the U.S. The museum, for its part, is crafting lesson plans for teachers to use in tandem with the exhibits. “Kids start out interested, but that interest wanes in middle school,” Lawrence says. “We hope this museum keeps that interest alive.”

The Museum of Mathematics is located at 11 East 26th Street in Manhattan. It opens to the public on December 15th, 2012.
About Jon Chang

Jon Chang is a science reporter based in New York City. He also has an unhealthy obsession with math, even if he's not very good at it.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.
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