Editor didn't want this story because we'd lose valuable jock clicks, but it was a fun time. Sited at the top of Madison Square Park are two floors of unique interactive exhibits showcasing the aesthetics of math, where everything from conic sections to the normal distribution is made as engaging to young minds as humanly possible. The museum's executive director, Glen Whitney, also hopes the middle schoolers tromping through will take away a vocational message: "We want visitors to see that math is beautiful, math is fun, and math will get you a great job." Corporate donors including Google and Two Sigma, desperate for math-literate American workers, agreed with some CSR checks.
That last part surfaced Paul Lockhart's complaint
in my mind, that it's asinine to teach math to kids through a
practical, problem-solving lens, showing them how these little symbols
relate to the world around them. He contends that math exists only for
the mind to play around with. Showing kids that math is both delightful and useless makes for a stickier and worksheet-free math curriculum: only
the fun elegance, none of the utility. Leave that to the physicists. Luckily this museum keeps the vocational message subliminal, with only one or two mentions of "usefulness" in the explanatory kiosks, and even goes so far as to mostly banish numbers from the exhibits. A good trick to slip under the radar of the math-phobic.
The place really is a lot of fun; exhibits light up, beep, whiz, click and clack, it's all very nicely put together. But I'm pessimistic on this museum's ability to get kids to study math in a serious way. A seventh grader coming home from a natural history museum can google genus names, memorize some epochs and be a little bit conversant in Cool Dinosaur Paleontology. They can do this because paleontology doesn't require, as mathematics does, abstract thinking in an entirely new language. A kid leaving this museum excited about hypotrochoids and differential geomery and fractals will hit the wall immediately; her teacher can't explain them, she can't wikipedia her way into it, and back in the classroom she's jammed right back into the world of algebra worksheets. A math dream deferred 'til college, if she even remembers her two day infatuation with the loveliness of math.
In addition to being galactically beyond the reach of kids, the real practice of all this neat-o math is not aesthetically pleasing or even vocational. Math at this level happens almost exclusively in minds and on paper. Visualizations, which this number-concealing museum relies on exclusively, rarely figure into what mathematicians do all day. Second, the math that will land you a job with Google or Two Sigma can't be demonstrated in a cute way. Statics? Set theory? GAAP? All absent from this museum, and for good reason. One can't jazz those up enough to grab a passing child's interest.
When asked about this, Whitney countered with "the Museum is here to change attitudes, not teach techniques. And as for the math being too advanced, I'm showing kids the shore on the other side of the ocean; nobody will set out on a journey if they think they're only going to see more waves." I'll accept that. It's a taste of a distant land, made tactile and colorful. I'm just worried that kids who start the journey expecting Disneyland at the other end will be sorely disappointed upon arriving at a salt flat.