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Forget what you think you know about math: At the National Museum of Mathematics in Manhattan, it’s not something you work on with pencil and paper.
It’s about hands-on experiences with the latest in robotics and laser lights, 3-D printing, fractals and more. It’s about understanding how mathematics underpins much of the modern world.
A hush fell over the 110 5th- and 6th-graders from PS 150 in Sunnyside, Queens, as they entered the museum on a Jan. 12 class trip and were awestruck by the colors, lights and fascinating new shapes Jonathan Fickies and exhibits around them.
“We came here last year thinking it would be just an ordinary trip, but the kids had a phenomenal time. They really loved it,” said the school’s math and science teacher, Mindy Kolomeysky.
The museum, she said, “takes everything we’ve already learned and applies it to real-world settings.” This time she brought the entire 6th grade of the school, including a self-contained class and a 5th-grade gifted-and-talented class.
“Welcome to MoMath; we’re an interactive museum — that’s how we do the learning here,” said Alex Gelman, one of the guides at the museum.
After his brief introduction, the students were free to flit from one exhibit to another, wherever their interests led them. One group headed off to ride the strange-looking tricycles with square wheels.
“We talked about this in geometry before the trip,” Kolomeysky said. “We discussed, ‘Is it possible to ride a bicycle without round wheels? What kind of wheels would it have and what type of surface would your noncircular wheels need?’”
Jadyn got off the tricycle laughing. “It hurt!” she said. She had predicted that it was not possible to ride without round wheels. “Now I know it is possible, but you need this bumpy, wavy floor.”
Her takeaway: “Math is really fun. You get to learn new things.”
Ten-year-old Alexandria was fascinated by her ability to create objects she’s never seen in the Mathenaeum, a math-sculpture studio where specially created software allows visitors to build designs using points, faces and lines.
“If people like my shape, they can put it in a 3-D printer,” she explains, showing selected examples that are now on display.
The museum’s newest exhibit is Robot Swarm, which features light-up robots that look like horseshoe crabs and can be programmed by museum-goers to follow or flee from the humans on the floor above them.
The exhibit illustrates swarm behavior, found everywhere in biology from wolves to birds, fish, ants and bees. It’s on the cutting edge of robotics, useful for space and undersea exploration, search-and-rescue missions and other tasks.
Downstairs, a large group of students runs onto the Math Square floor, which lights up with different shapes and colors in a display of geometry gone wild.
The floor then morphs into a maze, with the rule that no left turns are allowed. No one — neither teachers nor students — was having much success until 11-year-old Salpy figured it out and everyone followed her like a Pied Piper.
How did she figure it out? “I just kept trying,” the math-loving 6th-grader said.
Special education teacher Joe Parker said the learning will continue back in the classroom. Jonathan Fickies “We’ll touch back on what they see here and how all of this relates to math. It’s more than playing games,” he said.
Back in the classroom, Kolomeysky said her students’ experience at the museum will resonate throughout the year. For instance, she said, they will take what they learned at the museum during the Secrets of Telling Secrets workshop, which was about deciphering a secret language, and apply it to algebra, which similarly involves letters standing for different variables.
Social studies teachers Tonia Perdue and Denise Kalogeras said the Jonathan Fickies workshop about secret codes will be useful in their classes that will be learning about the Holocaust this spring.
“Our big push in school is for student-led discussions, and I saw that happen a lot during our class trip,” Kolomeysky said. “Students worked together on many exhibits, extending what we’ve learned to real-life situations.”
Visit www.momath.org to find out more and to register for a class trip.
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