Flip It, Fold It, Figure It Out! Playing with Math

Topic: Mathematics Subtopic: Problem Solving

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Elizabeth Fleming

Published on July 24, 2008

  • Description and goals

    Flip It, Fold It, Figure It Out! Playing with Math is a 1500-sq. foot traveling mathematics exhibition with companion take-home educational materials. There are two copies of the traveling exhibit: one for the members of the North Carolina Grassroots Science Museums Collaborative reaching over 500,000 visitors, and a second that travels nationally to science centers reaching an estimated 750,000 additional visitors.

    The exhibit is organized into seven clusters of related components. Each cluster comprises a main activity area surrounded by a collection of related objects and images—from blueprints and telescope lenses to sneakers and rugs. These collections, gathered from around the world, illustrate how architects and product designers, craftsmen and scientists, extend the same skills that visitors are using to create works that fill our everyday lives and the world around us.

    Project goals:
    1. Engage participants in mathematical thinking and problem solving in familiar and interesting contexts.
    2. Expand participants’ understanding of the range of activities within the field of mathematics.
    3. Involve participants in math activities aligned with the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) standards.
    4. Strengthen a statewide informal mathematics learning initiative.
    5. Provide professional development for staff in smaller North Carolina museums.
    6. Enhance the opportunity for museums across the nation to present mathematics exhibits.

    Other guiding principles for the project:
    • Math concepts made explicit. Visitors will know they are using mathematical thinking skills, or will engage in activities that reveal an underlying mathematical principle.
    • Accessible to broadest possible audience (physically, culturally, and intellectually).
    • Core content to target upper-elementary-aged children with enough depth to be intellectually interesting for adults.
    • Culturally inclusive. Math concepts illustrated by interactive devices in the context of human endeavors in the arts, trades, etc. and using examples drawn from cultures around the world, historic and contemporary.

  • Development process and challenges

    • The original proposal for this exhibit project was “Mystery Solved: A Traveling Exhibit in Mathematics” and was intended to have visitors solve intriguing problems with math, highlighting the mathematics behind topics with broad popular appeal, such as mummies, dinosaurs, art, and construction. This contrived ‘mystery’ format evolved over the course of concept development, and eventually the themes for the exhibit settled into a focus on investigating the inherent math in human endeavors. The mystery, therefore, became ‘Where’s the Math?’ and considered the themes of Pattern, Shape, and Size. The decision to organize the exhibits around Pattern, Shape, and Size also allowed the developers to include richly textured examples of math applications from a diversity of cultures throughout history and the present. For instance, folding can be used as art, origami, and as means of computational analysis.

    • A key goal of this exhibit was to expand the realm of informal math learning by clearly placing math concepts in the context of scientific and day-to-day activities. The ‘Shopping for Volume’ exhibit, for example, encourages visitors to sort common products from smallest to largest volume using mayonnaise jars and bottles of dishwashing liquid.

    • Early on, it was recognized that visitors typically fail to recognize the math content inherent in science-technology exhibits and so was decided that the exhibit text and graphics would focus on the connections between the hands-on activities and formal mathematics. For example, visitors use tile blocks to create patterns and the graphic includes information about fractions and the relationships between angles and polygons.

    • Major consideration was given to how exhibits are identified as “math.” Does the word “math” need to be in the title of the exhibit in order for people to realize they were doing math and thus effect an attitudinal change about math? The idea of including the word math in the title is a balance between changing attitudes about math and scaring people away who would benefit most from the shift in thinking about mathematics. The conclusion was that the theme should not hide the math of the exhibit and that visitors should know that they are engaged in mathematical thinking. Moreover, it was decided that both teaching math and providing opportunities to use math skills were appropriate outcomes—as long as the visitor left with a changed understanding of the role of math.

    • Adopted a “bottom-up” exhibit development philosophy for this exhibit, emphasizing participant learning rather than exhibit teaching. Developers worked on what the visitor would do in order to take away new or reinforced ideas about math, and then worked on coming up with an appropriate overarching theme and title.

    • A goal for this exhibit was to design it to meet the needs of small and mid-sized science centers – institutions often lacking the facilities or financial resources to host a large traveling exhibit. While the small size of this exhibit was one step toward realizing this goal, some small institutions still found it challenging to load and unload some of the heavy casework.

    • The development process also included take-home kits for families to continue informal mathematics explorations at home. Some of the math investigations included in the kits, such as formulating your own soft drinks, utilized ideas that could not make it as freestanding components on the exhibit floor. Other activities, like designing quilts using pattern blocks, served to extend the exhibit themes and activities beyond the museum setting.

  • Lessons learned, mistakes we made (and what we did about them)

    Most visitors recognized the exhibition’s relationship to math and used the underlying design themes of pattern, shape, and size to describe the relationship. In many cases, although visitors may not have used ‘mathematical’ words, such as compare or measure, they engaged in those actions and used their own words, such as bigger or smaller, to describe their actions. It was also found that visitors stayed in the exhibition and at specific exhibits for longer than comparable science center exhibits.

  • Exhibition Opened: June 2005

  • Exhibition Still Open!

  • Traveling Exhibition: Yes

  • Location: Durham, NC, United States

  • Estimated Cost: $1,000,000 to $3,000,000 (US)

  • Size: 1000 to 3,000 sq ft.

  • NSF Funding: Yes, Grant No. ESI-0307550

  • Website(s):  http://www.astc.org/exhibitions/flipit/dflipit.htm

Latest Comments (1)

Making the math explicit

by Wendy Pollock - July 25, 2008

Do you think the use of the word “math” in the signage made a difference in visitors’ understandings? How explicit to be in use of language is a question for a lot of science exhibit developers. From your findings, it looks as if this did make a difference, at least in the ways people talked about the exhibition.

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