>Math Conversation = <Math Anxiety

Denise LeBlanc
September 25, 2018
a mother and son see themselves in a hinged mirror as they play with geometric shapes

“Look, look, there’s 13 of me!” exclaims a young boy as he peers into a nearly closed Hinged Mirror. “I can’t see you,” says his mom. He opens the mirror wider and there are fewer reflections of him. “It needs to be almost closed!” he declares.

Near the Math Dance exhibit two girls are making arcs with their arms as they follow a Native American dance sequence that is displayed on a screen and overlaid with shapes that the dancers make as they move. “Oh, you hold your arms in a line, while you swoop around,” one of the girls proclaims.

At the Light Table toddlers are busy arranging and rearranging colorful magnetic shapes. One is covering the corner of the table with squares and triangles, another is sliding pieces randomly, a third is trying to make them stand up.

All of these children are exploring the fundamentals of symmetry, geometry, and patterns.

You may not see a mathematical formula in the Yes, It’s Math gallery, but you’ll hear logical reasoning, problem solving, and math conversations all around. I recently wrote that in planning for this gallery, our intention was to create an absorbing environment for investigative math. Our approach is to stimulate visitors’ natural curiosity and fascination with symmetry, geometry, probability, and other math phenomena, and then to remind them (especially the adults) that ‘yes, it’s math!’

Now that the new museum is open, I spend time observing how our visitors interact with the exhibits. In the Yes, It’s Math gallery, I am curious to see whether children seem to be having memorable experiences, ones that they will remember when they encounter math concepts in school.

After visiting the gallery, most respondents to our Visitor Survey express a slightly increased comfort in engaging in play and conversations related to math with their child. Representative comments from the survey include:

“The kids love this area!”

“The exhibit was amazing and intrigued my 5- and 7-year-old girls.”

“The woman who did the drawing with the swinging table was excellent!” (This refers to our staffed Harmonograph table.) “She explained things well and asked the children questions.”

“It’s a great area. My daughter is only two so I’m not expecting to leverage a lot at this point. But just exposing my family to play and math combined is huge for me.”

Other respondents make comments along the lines of “I didn’t realize it was math related.” Or, “My kids are too young for getting into math.” Believe it or not, these are the type of comments that interest and excite me the most as I think about how best to address them. We want to find ways to help our visitors realize that there is math embedded in the exhibits—and in their world—and that children are never too young to develop math awareness and skills.

At a recent meeting of our Math Advisory Board we reviewed the survey results and explored the math gallery to brainstorm changes and improvements that will increase awareness, conversation, and the understanding that no one is too young to explore math. We are testing signs, images, and prompts to see if they promote more conversation and connections. We will incorporate our findings into future staff trainings.

As we foster positive conversations about math for all ages, we hope to reduce the negative stereotypes often proclaimed by adults around their math ability and interest.  All of this, we hope, will enrich this environment where laughter and awe are embedded in math discoveries.

blog author Denise LeBlanc
Denise LeBlanc

I was working as a research biochemist when Don Verger, founder of the Discovery Museum, said, “join my new science museum!” That was the start of more than 25 years of making science accessible to kids—how wonderful is that? After working in labs at Dartmouth and Brandeis (which I also loved) I was now developing interactive science programs and exhibits, directing grant projects, and coordinating university and national collaborations. I’m currently directing our initiative to design and build an accessible treehouse, outdoor experiences, and environmental programs. I also lead our Science Communication Fellowship program, part of the national Portal to the Public network which brings scientists and public audiences together in face-to-face interactions. As a mother and a new grandmother, I've been excited to help with new exhibit development focused on early brain development for children ages zero to three and their families.

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We firmly believe in the fundamental value of play for children—and families—to support emotional, developmental, and social health and well-being. This blog will explore why play matters, and touch on all aspects of our work to encourage play and support early STEM learning.