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It’s True! A Visit To A Math Or Science Museum Can Be a Turning Point In A Child’s Life
Lance Winslow, one of the most prolific authors as well as a wonderful person here at EzinesArticles recently wrote an article about how visiting a math museum can make someone “math addicted” for life. . His article specifically mentioned a museum being built in New York; but reading his article took me back to my 8th grade and a trip to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. This museum has, in fact, hooked me on mathematics for life!
During my school years, I lived in a town in central Indiana, Anderson, near Indianapolis. A yearly tradition at my high school was that 8th grade science students who got an “A” or a “B” for the entire course also won an end-of-year field trip to the Museum of Science and Industry. of Chicago as a reward. for a successful year. This goal made many of us work very hard to make sure we qualified for the trip. It was a coveted prize.
The Chicago Museum of Science and Industry is huge, has interesting exhibits for adults and children, and is a vacation destination all on its own. I visited many unique exhibits that day including a WWII submarine, coal mine, chick hatchery and more. but when I found the math wing, I became transfixed by what I saw – and it changed my future!
I have no idea how much time I spent in front of a huge screen that people would probably think of today as Plinko from the game show Price Is Right. This screen was floor to ceiling and about 6 inches thick, had clear glass front and back with pegs about 4 inches apart between the two panes. A conveyor belt ran vertically on the side, and each shovel carried a small ball. At the top, the ball rolled to the center, then fell through a hole and started bouncing from peg to peg. In the middle of the display, the ball would then fall in a long column at whatever location the ball landed. The lower half of the display consisted of columns under each of the slots. On the glass of this lower part was painted a “normal distribution curve” or a “bell curve”.
During each ball drop session, balls bounced from one peg to another and eventually landed in a slot in the middle of the row, then dropped down a column. As expected, most balls settled in several of the more centered columns, but some balls bounced to the outside edges. Over time, the columns began to fill with balls, usually close to the height indicated by the painted line. At the end of the cycle, the ground opened up, the balls fell and a new cycle began. I was hypnotized!
You might think the heights of the columns matched the painted curve perfectly, but they never did. It was always close, but never exact. Sometimes one column can be too tall while others are too short. The next cycle could be close to expectations. What I witnessed was the very concept of probability – what SHOULD happen versus what REALLY happens. Regardless of small variations, the basics of a normal distribution were there – the tallest midsections with the pitches extending right and left.
At the time, I knew next to nothing about a “normal cast”, but this display with its many repetitions firmly planted in my brain what it all really meant. In high school math and psychology classes, the concept of a normal distribution, the associated percentages for each section, the concept of standard deviation made perfect sense to me because I had seen it all happen over and over again and Again. Extending these concepts to human characteristics like IQ or height seemed natural.
The second exhibit that I liked still exists in the museum today – a whispering booth. The concept here is to have two platforms a long distance apart and opposite each other. Two people take position on each platform, again, facing each other; then begins to whisper very softly into a curved plexiglass sheet. Surprisingly, you hear everything your friend says and that person hears you without difficulty, but the people standing a meter away from you hear NOTHING. For me, it was like magic!
In eighth grade, I still hadn’t learned anything about conic sections and their special properties. A whisper booth is created on the concept of an ellipse (think football shape) and the fact that any sound or light wave coming from a focus point will bounce off the sides of the curve to land exactly second focal point. The platforms were placed at the focal points of an ellipse and the Plexiglas curves where a section of an elliptical shape. The whisper from one focal point sent the sound directly to the other focal point to be heard by my classmate, but no one else.
To this day, after a full career teaching math, I can’t mention the “normal distribution” or the “ellipse” that I don’t mentally transport to the Museum of Science and Industry and see everything it happen again with the same fascination I felt like an 8th grader. Needless to say, my own children were immersed in this museum. I highly recommend that no matter where you live, you include the Museum of Science and Industry as a travel destination before your kids are adults.
I did some research to determine if both exhibits still exist. The whispering booth still exists, but I couldn’t find any information about the other exhibit anyway; but this museum has so much to offer that anything else will just grab the fascination. While reading some comments about the museum, a mother shared what her granddaughter calls the museum – The Science Museum and INTERESTING. This little girl is absolutely right!
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