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They’re Made for Each Other! Math and the Museum

Teachers understand that the school-museum field trip connection is a real “no-brainer.” You teach science? You take your class to science museums, aquaria, zoos, and nature centers. You teach social studies? You visit historic houses, sites, and history museums. You go to the art museum if you teach art, or if the museum in question schedules an “everybody should see it” blockbuster.

If you teach math, you stay at school. Unless, of course, you happen to hook up with an innovative museum, zoo, nature center, or historic house that helps you bring math out of the classroom and math textbook and into the real world. School artificially separates academic subjects; museums can help teachers creatively recombine them.

Art Museums and Galleries

One way to bring math into the art museum or gallery is to use the elements of math to create art. For example, a study of Renaissance painters such as Raphael leads naturally to student experimentation with perspective and symmetry. Vasarely and other Op artists of the twentieth century are the perfect foil tor a geometry class at the art museum, where real people really used squares, circles, and triangles to create art, and students can, too.

Another way to use the visual arts to study math concepts involves seeing past the aesthetics of a piece of art and viewing it as an object. By calculating the relationship of sculptures to actual sized people, horses, etc., or by comparing small reproductions to larger paintings, students can practice working with ratios, measurement, rational numbers, and decimal fractions.

Science Museums, Zoos, Nature Centers, Gardens

Institutions dealing with the sciences are great places for students to work with graphic math. From the simple pictorial graphs kindergartners might make to show how many lions, tigers, and bears they saw at the zoo, math students can learn increasingly more complex ways to display and interpret graphic data. Computer-generated graphics used by such institutions to track growth, food consumption, etc. can be used to help students see that such math is used outside the classroom in the real world. Year-long museum-school collaborations help students understand how tables, graphs, and charts are used to predict behavior, growth, and other aspects of plant and animal life.

History Museums, Sites, and Historic Houses

Time lines are math-made-to-order for institutions that deal with history. Such institutions can provide significant dates in their history, or they can help students generate such dates, as a basis for designing and studying time lines for first hand experience with such math concepts as range, intervals, and measurement. If time lines already exist as part of an exhibit, students can create parallel time lines to help them put the specific exhibit into a larger time frame.

Creating a Math Connection

It is essential that museum educators work with classroom teachers when creating a program that correlates with the school math curriculum. Without teacher input, the museum may design an exciting and challenging math connection that will never be used! Unlike science and social studies teachers, most math teachers are not “programmed” to take their students on field trips. Even in elementary schools where subject matter is not departmentalized, teachers may have to be trained to see the museum as an adjunct to their math instruction.

In addition to consulting teachers and the prescribed math curriculum for an individual school system, museum program designers should make the program consistent with the published Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics. In March, 1989, the National Council ofTeachers of Mathematics officially released the Standards, designed to strengthen the mathematics curriculum in kindergarten through grade 12. The Standards include four interrelated, unifying themes that should be incorporated into any effective math program.

The first theme involves mathematics as problem solving: learning and applying mathematics from problems developed within familiar contexts, as well as in stories and from math itself. It is within this theme that museums and other such institutions can provide real-life problems and offer students opportunities to create solutions.

Example: In a history museum, students use paper cut-out geometric shapes to create quilt blocks. Individual blocks are then combined with those of other students to create a class “quilt” before viewing how quilts from the collection were designed.

Another theme — mathematics as communication — gives students experiences in talking and writing about their experiences with math; reading number sentences, as well as reading graphs, tables, and charts; and listening to others’ explanations of their solutions to problems.

Example: In an aquarium, students are asked how much space each fish has in a particular tank. Individuals may measure and calculate the volume of water in the tank, count the number offish in a sample area, estimate the space per fish, or solve the problem in a totally unexpected way. The important part of the problem is discussing individual solutions.

Mathematics as reasoning, the third Standards theme, allows students to observe and defend their solutions, to question and experiment with math. The open-ended questioning inherent in a good museum program invites such reasoning.

Example: In an art museum, students are given $1 million in play money and instructed to “buy” pieces of art from the collection. As they defend their choices, they discuss relative value as well as the meaning of “one million.” Finally, the Standards suggest mathematical connections, and it is here that museums, zoos, historic sites and homes, nature centers, and botanical gardens can creatively help teachers connect math to other disciplines. Additionally, because such institutions really do use math in a variety of ways, they can assist in guiding students to see the interrelatedness among number theory, geometry, algebra, probability, etc.

Example: In a historic house, students measure and graph the arcs of pendulums of varying lengths before examining a collection of antique clocks to see, literally, “what makes them tick.”

Fighting Math Fear

The greatest hurdle to overcome in creating a museum math program, however, may not be in developing the program, but in activating it. Many museum educators, staff as well as volunteer docents, may suffer from “math phobia.” Most docents are of an age, gender, and generation that was taught math without the benefit of the hands-on, inquiry teaching now more common in math classes. Consequently, their fear of math comes from never having had positive classroom math experiences. The same people who maintain their family’s finances, increase recipes to feed 20 instead of 6, and accurately buy rooms full of expensive carpet and wallpaper will insist that they don’t understand math!

Invite a good classroom teacher to lead docents through the math they will need in order to present your new program. Having the same kind of fun with math that the students will have will help banish any residual math fears and insure the success of math in the museum.

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “They’re Made for Each Other! Math and the Museum,” The Docent Educator 6.2 (Winter 1996-97): 18-19.


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