Friday, September 14, 2012

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's... math?

Of all the areas of STEM, I keep hearing that the M is the toughest one to make exciting for kids in out-of-school time programs.  The thinking goes like this: Science includes exciting subject matter from whales to outer space that instantly captures kids' imaginations; Technology is overflowing with gadgets and gizmos that kids are instantly attracted to; Engineering is full of hands-on, team oriented projects, often built in competition and culminating in dramatic roof-top launches, crowds of cheering onlookers and even explosions.

What can we do to make Mathematics that exciting?

Earlier this week I heard about the work of an artist named ISHKY, who designed the world's largest ephemeral art installation.  The piece is the first 1,000 digits in the number pi, drawn by five synchronized skywriters above the San Francisco Bay Area.  I went outside around lunchtime and watched and waited.  Just when I thought I had missed it, I saw a trail of unusual white puffs headed in my direction.  And soon after that:

Watching this event, somehow simultaneously dramatic and simple, raised many questions for me.  Some were about the logistics of pulling off a stunt like this: How did they rehearse for this event? How does skywriting work?  Other questions I had were about the artist: Where did this idea come from? What does he hope to accomplish or inspire from this work?

But it turned out, most of my questions involved some kind of math. How high are those planes?  How big are they?  How much skywriting compound is each plane carrying? How close together are those planes flying? How many digits did they write from San Jose to Berkeley?  How long will it take them to fly over San Francisco?  At this height, given the visibility today and the low wind speed, how many people can see some part of this art before it blows away if they just take the time to look up right now?

Imagine all of the kinds of questions kids have.  Some, it is important to admit, are unanswerable.  Some are questions that science can answer, through experimentation, isolating variables, testing and using the right instrument to measure the right data.  Some questions are better answered through art and engineering, by following a creative process to discover the experience and 'how' of making.  And some questions, often the first that kids have about the world around them have numerical answers.  How big? How many? How fast? How heavy?

When it comes to numbers, some folks are intimidated by them, perhaps because of their concrete finality.  The idea that in math there ARE right and wrong answers is scary to some and comforting to others.  So how can after school providers help make math exciting and accessible to everyone?  Perhaps we can start by helping kids look at the kinds of questions they have, and helping them classify those questions.  Which ones can we really answer?  Which ones can we find out through experimenting?  Which ones can we discover through measuring or counting?

For me, the most exciting thing about mathematics is that it begins so simply with counting, and it continues on infinitely, not unlike the human quest for knowledge.

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