Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Making "math" "fun"

Education experts around the country are convinced that students are turned off to math because it isn't sufficiently fun. And most of them think that the more you shift away from pen and paper exercises towards hands-on, group activities, the more fun math becomes.

That's certainly the thinking behind much of Reform Math; now some museums are getting in on the game as well. Look how much fun these students are having:

According to a recent article in Education Week, they're dancing on the light-activated Math Square at the Museum of Mathematics in New York, which opened on 12/12/12.

As the article explains:
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."
They [the curators] 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.
"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 [former hedge-fund analyst and now the president and co-executive director] 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."
Specific MoMath activities include:

-- "dancing in front of screens that illustrate fractals and riding an oversize tricycle with square wheels on a bumpy track.
-- "trying to fit various shapes into the smallest boundary"
-- "putting together a large, colorful foam tetraxis geometric structure."
-- learning about cryptography and knot theory in 45-minute sessions taught by "Mo-Math educators."

The article quotes co-executive director Cindy Lawrence, who earlier directed a program for gifted math students:
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."
Also supportive is senior scientist Andee Rubin of TERC, which has brought us such wonders as Investigations Math:
"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.
Not that there hasn't been some criticism--more from actual visitors and classroom teachers than from "experts" from TERC and NCTM. Says one 7th grade teacher about his students: "They are interested, 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.
Instead of exploring how the museum is addressing this concern, the article enthusiastically moves on to other museums. There's the Geometry Playground at the Exploratorium in San Francisco:
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.
Then there's the Design Zone at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, with "25 exhibits to engage 10- to 14-year-olds in algebraic thinking":
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.
And, finally, there's the The Math Moves exhibit at the St. Paul museum:
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 Newell, the director of physical sciences, engineering, and math at the museum.
Of course, nothing's complete these days without a reference to the Common Core, pedagogically neutral though everyone claims it is:
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.
But what about actual math problems--as opposed to combining shapes, measuring shadows, playing around with (apparently non-mathematical) patterns, dancing on math squares, climbing on geometric structures, playing hopscotch in front of curved mirrors, putting together music tracks, and attending mini-lessons in peripheral topics? How does actual math measure up in terms of fun?

Stay tuned for a follow-up post entitled Making math fun.


Niels Henrik Abel said...

Two inescapable truths that these "math-is-fun" crusaders conveniently overlook:

1) "wax-on, wax-off" is NOT fun.

2) Being able to deal with the "fun" stuff in mathematics presupposes that you have slogged through much time practicing "wax-on, wax-off," so that foundational material has become automatic - thus freeing your mind to contemplate the concepts involved in the "fun" stuff.

Ze'ev Wurman said...

Hyping students to go to STEM is a lesser problem. Their dropping out once they realize how unprepared they are is something that idiotic "make fun" exhibits won't solve.



Anonymous said...

"In general, the math that kids encounter in school is often restrictive.."

That whole part about having right answers and wrong answers is so ethnocentric and insensitive.

Isn't it better to have a math where everybody can be equally proud of their answer?

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure the idea here is to spur them into wanting to learn more and practice more.

I mean, when I go to the Air and Space Museum, I don't get a lecture on physics, right? But maybe my kid sees the planes, and gets the idea to learn more about them.

Policing what families do with their kids out of school hours is beside the point.

Anonymous said...

For some people, math can be "fun" a lot of the time; for most of us it is only fun sometimes. It can be, however, very empowering if we get good enough at it so that it can help us do other things that we want to do -- everything from dressmaking to farming to medical technology to raising kids. It is not fun, for anyone, if instruction and practice don't lead to mastery and we then have to try to learn the next level of math with an inadequate level of preparation.

Hainish said...

One more: Fraction action summer camps.


jtidwell said...

I've seen some of the traveling exhibits from MoMath. They were actually quite interesting to my math-loving kid: the number line and its mysterious symbols kept him engaged for nearly an hour, and a "function machine" even taught him some concepts he hadn't previously been exposed to. But this is a kid who's already done the day-to-day hard work of mathematics -- he can recognize a sequence of squares or cubes right off the bat, he's seen the Fibonacci sequence, he understands that division is an inversion of multiplication, and so on. I see nothing wrong with an entire museum devoted to "interesting" mathematical displays such as these. He'd dig it.

Design Zone, on the other hand, left much to be desired. We saw its traveling exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science, and frankly, most of those displays were fundamentally boring while trying hard to be "exciting" or "relevant." Didn't engage him one bit. (Except for the marble runs, which any self-respecting child will enjoy.) I have opinions on why this is so, but that's a lot of detail not necessary here.

Of course, my child is probably not the target audience for either museum -- I suppose they're trying to reach kids who already think math is boring.