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!

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.