Squealing schoolchildren ride a square-wheeled tricycle and a “Coaster Roller” that glides over plastic acorns. Downstairs, they fit monkey magnets together at the “Tessellation Station.”
This is how math is presented at New York City’s new National Museum of Mathematics, the only museum of its kind in the United States and a place where math is anything but boring.
“Math’s not just memorizing your multiplication tables,” said Cindy Lawrence, the museum’s associate director. “Math is a creative endeavor, and that’s what we want people to realize.”
Glen Whitney, 42, who had the idea for the museum — it’s called MoMath — said prominent mathematicians gladly shared their expertise for the museum’s hands-on exhibits.
“They’re absolutely thrilled,” he said. “They’re so giving of their time and their energy and their enthusiasm. And I think a lot of mathematicians sort of get the sense that they are working in a misunderstood field.”
The museum’s target audience is kids in fourth through eighth grades, but the exhibits can be enjoyed by children on one level while challenging adults on another.
The point of the Coaster Roller is that the acornlike shapes have a constant diameter although they are not spheres, so the clear plastic sled glides smoothly over them.
Other exhibits allow museum visitors to create objects that will go on display, either by building them with a Tinker Toy-like system called Zome Tools or by computer modeling.
The Tessellation Station is a wall that visitors can cover with magnet shapes.
Tessellation is the process of creating a flat surface, such as a tiled floor, by repeatedly using squares, hexagons or other geometric shapes. MoMath visitors can build tessellations with pieces shaped like rabbits, monkeys and dinosaurs. There also is a Marjorie Rice pentagon, named for an amateur mathematician whose tessellation discoveries were later confirmed by professionals. The museum is highlighting Rice’s work to spark girls’ love of math.
Sharon Collins, a math teacher at Bronx Preparatory Charter School, brought a high school group to MoMath recently; she said her students enjoyed the square-wheeled tricycle just as much as the younger kids did.
“The students would ride the bike and then think — Why am I able to ride the bike?” Collins said. “They saw the real-world connections of math, which are sometimes missing in a classroom setting.”
Second-grader Desire’e Thomas of Girls Prep in Manhattan also was there with her class.
“I think that it’s very interesting, and I think that it’s fun,” Desire’e said. “I’m building with different shapes, and I’m playing on them.”