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EducationFinding the Math: A Math Momentum Sampler
Finding the Math: A Math Momentum Sampler

By Carolyn Sutterfield and the MMSC Teams

Participation in Math Momentum in Science Centers (MMSC), the 2003-2005 project led by TERC in collaboration with ASTC, required a major commitment from the 13 participating institutions. Over the course of three years, each chose an in-house math team, took part in professional development activities, worked to "find the math" in its existing programs and exhibits, hosted a math-related workshop open to other museums, and developed a project that reflected the institution's new understanding of, and commitment to, the mathematical content of science.

The following accounts are based on the experiences of four MMSC teams. They represent just a sampling of the kinds of challenges and rewards experienced by all of the project partners.

OMSI's Discovery Lab

Visitors explore the Shapes and Patterns Discovery Drawer in OMSI's Discovery Lab.
Photo courtesy Oregon Museum of Science and Industry

Math in a Box:
Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI)

The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI), in Portland, built its Math Momentum project around an existing resource, the thematic Discovery Boxes and Discovery Drawers housed in the museum's early childhood Discovery Lab.

Each of the 10 large Discovery Boxes contains an integrated curriculum on a particular science topic, with materials ranging from storybooks, puppets, and puzzles to science books, artifacts, activity supplies, and educational toys. The boxes are used by museum educators for story time and reserved lab classes, and they are also available to staff and volunteers in other areas of the museum to use with OMSI's youngest visitors.

The smaller Discovery Drawers, also thematic, are designed to be used by adults and children together. The 24 drawers are divided into two sets of 12, which allows them to rotate out twice a year for maintenance. Like the larger boxes, the drawers include storybooks, science books, puzzles, artifacts, and toys, along with a simple instruction card that outlines some activities and open-ended questions to encourage children's learning. Parents frequently spend long sessions exploring these materials with their kids in the lab.

Funding and professional development from MMSC enabled the OMSI team to integrate mathematics into the Discovery Boxes and Drawers. Initially, the idea was to develop a math component for each of the resources, and that plan is still in the works. But for the immediate task, the decision was made to create several new resources focused specifically on math.

The result was a new Weights and Measures Discovery Box, and four new Discovery Drawers: Numbers and Counting, Shapes and Patterns, Weights and Measurements, and Telling Time. Each contains instructions for educators and parents and tools for exploration and experimentation, such as measuring tapes, a balance scale, and volume measures.

The response, particularly from parents, has been overwhelming. "What amazes us," said a team member, "is hearing from parents that (1) they can't believe their 2-year-olds would be interested in what a balance is or how to use it, and (2) how thankful they are that we provided this opportunity for them to put tools in their kids' hands and let them explore."

The MMSC team is especially mindful of the need to increase access to such experiences for children from low-income communities. For the Head Start groups that come to OMSI, or for the families that have recently begun visiting with support from the Latinos en Ciencia Project, a session with the Discovery Boxes or Drawers may be the first time the children have had the chance to see or handle the tools of science and math. "Just having looked through a microscope, having used a balance scale, makes them feel more comfortable," says a team member, "and raises their confidence level for school."

Mathtodons & Co.

Activities in Mathtodons & Co. are based on an Ice Age dig; here, visitors compare their footprint to a mastodon's.
Photo courtesy Buffalo Museum of Science

From Mastodons to Master Planning:
Buffalo Museum of Science

For more than 20 years, staff and volunteers of the Buffalo Museum of Science have been working under the direction of Dr. Richard Laub to excavate and analyze the Hiscock site, a paleontological Ice Age dig site in western New York State. Exciting finds have included mastodon jaws and tusks, an Ice Age beaver tooth, and Paleo-Indian artifacts like projectile points.

As their MMSC project, Buffalo's math team decided to combine two museum goals: increasing public awareness of the Ice Age research and incorporating more inquiry-based math activities in exhibits and programs. The result was Mathtodons & Co., a multigenerational experience in the museum's Byron Dig Experience Lab that focuses on data, measurement, graphing, and ratios.

Ideas came from various sources. In Buffalo's regional MMSC workshop, held June 28, 2005, participants practiced uncovering math concepts in the museum's new Connections gallery. A "Meet the Scientist" session with the staff paleontologist offered insight into the ways he uses data and measurement in the field and the laboratory. Inspiration also came from sources like the Family Math books published by the Lawrence Hall of Science. "The greatest challenge," says one team member, "was trying to formulate open-ended questions."

Because Buffalo's staff works in cross-departmental "experience teams" that blend programming and exhibits, it was natural that a math focus would filter into other areas of programming, say team members. In particular, workshop discussions about equity in mathematics raised awareness of the need to help enhance children's experiences outside the museum walls. Buffalo was already involved, under a different grant, in providing outreach programming to 12 underserved communities in northwestern New York State. Math team members put together mathematics activities in kits for 6- to 12-year-olds and distributed them to community partners.

Recently, the museum completed a staff restructuring and a new strategic master plan. Though the process has limited the amount of time and energy available for projects like MMSC, it also promises new opportunities in areas like biomechanics, one aspect of the museum's new theme of Biology and Life.

"This has been the ideal time for us to do Math Momentum," says a team member. "As we plan, it will be easier to keep math in the back of our minds."

Lone Star Dinosaurs

A visitor to Lone Star Dinosaurs uses a measuring tape to explore the dimensions of a fossilized dinosaur femur.
Photo by Oscar Williams/courtesy FWMSH

Taking Math Home:
Fort Worth Museum of Science and History

One of the main content areas at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History (FWMSH), in Ft. Worth, Texas, is dinosaurs. The museum's 8,000-square-foot Lone Star Dinosaurs exhibition, opened in May 2005, introduced five new species found in Texas within the past 18 years, two of them discovered by children.

So it was logical that FWMSH staff would choose to build their MMSC project around the exhibition. Five outreach projects were called for in the original proposal, which was funded in part by the National Science Foundation. One of the collaterals, the Lone Star Dinosaur Family Activity Guide, was to be a four-page, take-home publication in English and Spanish that would support and facilitate post-visit conversations about dinosaurs. The target audience was children aged 5 to 11 and their caregivers.

At first, planners saw the guide as focused on science process skills. But after staff participated in the MMSC professional development experiences, the vision shifted to include math.

In the on-site exhibition, certain areas lend themselves well to basic measurement and data collection. Among them is the Lab, where visitors can use a measuring tape to explore the dimensions of a fossilized dinosaur femur or estimate the weight of a live dinosaur. "People have a tendency to dig into this and try to make sense of it in a mathematical way," says an MMSC team member. "The participation with MMSC enabled us to 'extrovert' the mathematics that was naturally embedded within our new exhibition."

In compiling the guide, FWMSH staff drew on the prototyping done for the exhibition. For example, after seeing how the measuring tape tool got people actively engaged with the math at the femur station, they came up with simple measuring activities that people could do in their homes and backyards. One thing that parents like to do at frequent intervals is to measure their children: "How tall are you now? How much do you weigh?" Plotting this information allows them to compare family members and see change over time.

The museum's staff believe strongly in providing phenomena-based experiences with science as a complement to what children get in school. "Having that personal experience makes the science real and acts as a bridge between these two worlds," says a team member, adding that the same applies to math. Now, when museum planners think about new exhibits, he says, they ask themselves, "How can we help our visitors to 'see' quantity? What tool can we provide to help people start quantifying these qualitative things they're experiencing?"

Staff realize that they don't have to build math into their exhibits, the team member explains. "The math is there, and it is inside the heads of our visitors, inside their bodies, inside the way they think about the world.... The tendency is to say, 'Oh, they don't want to know the math.' But when there is an interesting exhibit, they do want to see the nuts and bolts. And a lot of times those nuts and bolts are math."


Taking a closer look: Science Corner staffer Nao Ueda, right, observes as a YES participant practices making precise measurements.
Photo courtesy St. Louis Science Center

Doing Math with Teenagers:
St. Louis Science Center

The St. Louis Science Center (SLSC), in St. Louis, Missouri, implemented its MMSC project within an existing program for teenaged audiences. The institution had been a participant in ASTC's 1990s YouthALIVE! initiative for underserved populations, and its current youth programs carry on that work.

The project SLSC chose was a genetics experiment in which the teens attempted to clone carrots in the laboratory. This work took place during summer sessions, under the auspices of the museum's Youth Exploring Science (YES) program, a four-year, work-based training program that serves children aged 14 to 18 from low-income areas of the city. Many of the students also participated in a math-related outdoor project that compared the rates of growth of two different corn plots over the summer.

The SLSC math team included two programs staffers and the director of community science projects. One challenge they faced was creating an environment where teens could feel successful even if they didn't have a strong math background. Another was managing the dynamics of small groups, so that a teen who was more competent in math did not wind up doing most of the work. In both projects, the teens learned to use math concepts, such as formulas and ratios, as well as tools like electric scales, to assess their results. Math thus became a means to complete their research, rather than just an abstract activity.

YES is unique among science center programs in that it has its own separate building (the Taylor Center) and its own audience. Participants are recommended by community organizations; there are no academic requirements for acceptance. For half of the day, the students learn about math and science content, and for the other half, they work on life skills.

The math projects were based in the program's Science Corner, which comprises both a laboratory and an outdoor work site for life science projects. The science center's commitment to including math in community science programs is ongoing, says the project director. "With every program we do, we now ask "What is the math link?"

Future Science Corner activities will include topics from geometry, such as volumes and solids—"things they will need for their future education," says a staff member. "Maybe we can push the math a little more," he adds, "and use the resources we have within the institution. It's powerful for a teen to be able to say, 'Yes, I did some calculus.'"

Carolyn Sutterfield is ASTC's editor. This article was compiled from interviews conducted by Jacquelyn Lowery, assistant director of ASTC's Partnerships for Learning, in spring 2005. Our thanks to all of the MMSC teams who participated.

NSF Logo

The Math Momentum in Science Centers project was supported by the National Science Foundation (Grant #ESI-0229782). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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