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Math Museum Readies for Grand Opening in New York City

What's being billed as the only math museum in North America is set for its public opening tomorrow in Manhattan. The Museum of Mathematics is not intended to provide a history lesson with artifacts on display from Newton, Galileo, and Euclid, but instead to bring math to life for young people, inspiring exploration and discovery. In fact, the primary target audience is children in grades 4-8, said MoMath founder and executive director Glen Whitney.

"We have in mind somebody in 4th through 8th grade, who is maybe starting to pick up that it's not cool to like math," Whitney, a former hedge-fund quantitative analyst, told me. "But we want to keep that [early] spark alive."

That said, he fully expects the MoMath exhibits, which bring a decidedly hands-on approach, will appeal to "everybody from kindergartners to graduate students in mathematics."

Although the museum, dubbed MoMath (a play on the Museum of Modern Art acronym, MoMA) is only making its public opening now, it already has a reach beyond its doors with a traveling exhibit called Math Midway, first introduced in 2009. Whitney said that over time, the museum expects to promote strong outreach with teachers, students, and schools, including summer math camps, after-school programs, and even a virtual museum that teachers can visit. But he cautioned that all of this will take time, and money.

"We've been focusing on the physical museum, because it's important to have a grounding and a place where we're seeing firsthand how people interact with these different experiences," he said. "We're trying to get as many teachers and schools as possible to know about what we're doing and who we are. We have hundreds of bookings for school groups already."

MoMath has a "strong relationship" with the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Whitney said, and will bring a version of its Math Midway exhibit to display at NCTM's annual convention in Denver in April.

On its website, the museum describes its intention this way: "Mathematics illuminates the patterns and structures all around us. Our dynamic exhibits and programs will stimulate inquiry, spark curiosity, and reveal the wonders of mathematics."

I first blogged about the math museum last year, after Google announced a $2 million gift to support it.

MoMath features more than 30 exhibits, all created exclusively for the museum. Here's a sampling, from MoMath press materials:

  • Mathenaeum: Visitors enter a seven-side, columned, geometric sculpture studio and use one of the stations to transform basic shapes into original designs.
  • Feedback Fractals: Get behind, and in front of, a camera to use feedback and other effects to create unique and ever-changing fractals. (A fractal is a type of geometric pattern.)
  • Tracks of Galileo: Learn what it takes to build the fastest downhill track, and try different curves to see how they affect the speed.
  • Human Tree: Strike a pose and see your body replicated as the trunk, branches, and sub-branches of a tree. Move around and watch as the tree morphs.
  • Shape Ranger: Select some shapes, place them on a table, and try to pack them together into the smallest area possible.

In addition to getting young people excited about math, Whitney said the museum also aims to help visitors understand that mathematics is not a fixed set of knowledge.

"One of the things we want to convey is that math is constantly evolving, and new things are being discovered all the time," he said.

Mathematical Practices

I asked Whitney if museum organizers have paid much attention to the new Common Core State Standards, adopted in math by all but five states.

"Obviously, we're aware of the common core," he said, "and interested in what it has to say. We're obviously particularly excited and supportive" of the common core's Standards for Mathematical Practice.

"We're trying to make a visit to the museum as authentic an opportunity as possible to experience real math practice," he said. "It's about creativity, exploration, and discovery."

(The eight math practices in the common core include making sense of problems, constructing viable arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others, modeling with mathematics, and using appropriate strategically.)

Although the math museum may be unique to North America, it's not the only such museum around the globe. Germany has four such museums, Whitney told me, while Seoul, South Korea, is home to one, as are Barcelona, Spain, and Florence, Italy.

The entrance fee for MoMath is $15 for adults and $9 for children if purchased online in advance. At the door, the ticket price goes up $1.

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