Museums and Math: The Perfect Pair

posted by Lindsay Maldonado

The shedd aquariumMuseums are likely the most common setting for informal learning. Unlike formal learning (i.e., traditional classroom learning), informal learning is voluntary, unstructured, and learner-led. These settings provide a variety of learning experiences for a diverse group of learners. Museums offer opportunities to be hands-on with objects and even live animals. Museum visitors can observe objects and animals, engage with exhibits, participate in programs, and listen to chats and presentations. Museums afford visitors with flexibility and choice, offering a more customizable learning experience. This is particularly important when you consider the variability of learning styles within one classroom or one family. The ability to create an experience that suits the needs of many makes museums an ideal learning setting.

But you might be asking, museums and math? You might be thinking; how do I teach children math at a museum? There are science museums, art museums, natural history museums – but, there are no math museums. Well, there is one museum in New York that is dedicated to math but in general, math museums are hard to come by so it’s a good thing that math is all around us — all the time, no matter the setting.

Growing up in Chicago I remember visiting Shedd Aquarium often as a child. I would stand in front of the habitats, gazing up to observe small fish, big fish, colorful fish, dull fish, and everything in between. I was in awe of the diversity; it was kind of like reading Dr. Seuss, “One fish Two fish Red fish Blue fish.” There were so many fish, but there were also fish of every color, size, and shape. At the time I wasn’t thinking about math, but as I reflect back on that experience I know that math really was all around me. This experience is not unique; I see thousands of children visiting Shedd every year. As they gaze into the same habitats I did many years earlier, I can see the sense of wonder and awe in their faces. Knowing what I know now, though, I think about taking that moment of wonder and creating a math moment too. I think about using that awe and excitement as a springboard to a conversation about how many fish, how are the fish different, or how are the fish the same. These teachable moments are all around you when you visit a museum.

As we explore museums and math together in the posts to follow, let’s first consider the big ideas of early mathematics: sets, number sense, counting, number operations, pattern, measurement, data analysis, spatial relationships, and shape. These nine ideas laid out by Erikson Institute’s Early Math Collaborative provide the foundation for exploring mathematical concepts in and out museums. We’ll touch on many of these ideas as we explore some of my favorite museum exhibits. So for a moment, let’s focus our exploration on math in museums. Let’s reflect on the ways in which these big ideas exist in museums. Come join me on a mathematical adventure!

What is Math?

posted by Lisa Ginet

When you hear or see the word “math,” what do you think of? Your high school algebra class? Balancing your checkbook? A geeky engineer with pocket protectors? When you add “early childhood” to “math,” what do you think of then? A little one learning to say, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10”? A bright poster with a circle, triangle and rectangle neatly labeled? All of these are common ideas about what math is and how math starts, but none of them are what I mean when I say “foundational math.” Before I tell you what I do mean, I want you to try something.

Look at this image:
shapes-pictureConsider this question:

Which of the figures are the same?

Often when I ask this, a person says, “They are all different from each other.” Another says, “They are all the same; they are all shapes.” Both of these answers make sense, but I often ask people to keep looking to see if anyone can come up with another answer. Usually, people then generate these six answers:

  • top two shapes are both orange
  • bottom two shapes are both green
  • left two shapes are both striped
  • right two shapes are both solid
  • top left and bottom right are both circles
  • top right and bottom left are both triangles

In fact, although none of the two shapes are identical to each other, any two of them are “the same” in some way. Figuring this out involves logical thinking about the attributes of the shapes.

This shape activity demonstrates one definition of mathematics – a logical way of thinking that allows for increasing precision. We can use math to make sense of the world. We can use math to solve problems. To use math in these ways, though, we cannot just memorize facts. We must build our own understanding, so that we can think flexibly in different situations. Without a strong foundation, a tall building would not stand for long. Likewise, without a strong foundation in mathematical concepts, children can struggle to understand the more complex mathematical thinking they need later in life.

At the Early Math Collaborative, we have developed a set of 26 “Big Ideas” – key mathematical concepts that lay the foundation for life-long mathematical learning and thinking. While these concepts can be explored at any early age, they are powerful enough that children can and should engage with them for years to come. As you engaged in the shape activity earlier, you were using two of the Big Ideas:

  • Attributes can be used to sort collections into sets.
  • The same collection can be sorted in different ways.

Most likely, you were not thinking about these ideas consciously; rather, you were looking at the shapes and thinking about them. You were using math to make sense of the puzzle I posed and to come up with a solution. This type of math may not match your prior notion of math as quickly-recalled facts and properly executed procedures. You may need to set aside some of those notions in order to develop a deep understanding of foundational math that will help you have fun doing math with children.

 

Early Math Collaborative

When we applied to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for a grant to develop this website, the folks over at the Erikson Institute also applied to support research and services in early math learning.  They call their project the “Early Math Collaborative,” and they are doing amazing work.

Check it out here.