Have you ever ridden a tricycle with square wheels or floated smoothly on a sea of lumpy acorns? The eighth-graders at Harford Friends School did just that when they visited the National Museum of Mathematics (also known as MoMath) in New York City with their teacher, Ray Pitz, and parent Chip Emely. Opened in December 2012, MoMath makes the sometimes ethereal concepts of mathematics truly concrete even for middle school algebra students.
Typically crowded with spectators of all ages, MoMath offers a unique collection of hands-on exhibits for everyone, from elementary math to physics and beyond. One of the museum staff members gave an hour-long presentation on "knot theory," a branch of topology, which has shed new light on areas such as DNA analysis and nautical science. Introducing the students to the differences between loops and knots, such as trefoils (yes, just like the Girl Scout cookies), pentafoils and other varieties of knots, she led the students to become literally "tied in knots" for several minutes before figuring out how to get "untied" without separating hands. These young people were intrigued to learn that this concept is a significant part of current mathematical research.
After the hour-long twisted adventure, the group spent the afternoon participating in the exhibits, including the tricycle with square wheels and the raft over lumpy acorns. The most unusual aspect of this museum is its interactivity. Visitors are encouraged and expected to touch and "try" all of the exhibits.
Although most of their time was spent at the museum, the students saw the Empire State Building, ate lunch at a New York deli and enjoyed life in the Big Apple; definitely a unique field trip.
Student Noah Wheatley summed up the experience as "a cool way to see math in action." Pitz said he hopes the visit will put a different "twist" on the way students think about mathematics. A math teacher for more than 35 years, he said "even I learned a lot of exciting new concepts." He hopes to make this trip an annual event.