SIAM News Blog

SIAM at the National Math Festival

By Byong Kwon and Rachel Levy

SIAM recruited more than sixty volunteers to help MoMath (the National Museum of Mathematics) operate 20 exhibits at the inaugural National Math Festival in Washington, DC, on April 18, 2015. Among the SIAM volunteers were members from the Baltimore–Washington metropolitan area, and student members from Columbia, George Mason, Old Dominion, and Shippensburg Universities, the University of Delaware, the University of Maryland (Baltimore County and College Park), and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Participation of some of the student chapters was funded by SIAM.

“I’m delighted that so many SIAM student chapter members were able to share their love of mathematics at the festival,” said Rachel Levy, SIAM vice president for education.

As the nation’s only museum of mathematics, MoMath was delighted to bring over 20 hands-on, engaging math exhibits to the nation’s capital,” said Cindy Lawrence, MoMath executive director and co-founder. “MoMath is grateful to the many volunteers who came out to share their own love of math with others, and is especially appreciative of the large role played by SIAM in bringing out a volunteer force over 100 strong.”

The enthusiasm level among children and parents was high. Visitors to the exhibits, which were located in the Enid A. Haupt Garden of the Smithsonian complex, especially enjoyed those that were low-tech and tactile, such as “Space Tessellation,”  where visitors built icosahedrons from wire coat hangers, and the “Mysterious Harmonograph.” The most popular MoMath exhibit, “Pedal on the Petals,” a bicycle with square wheels on a catenary-shaped track, frequently had a long line of visitors waiting to ride the bicycle.

MoMath exhibit "Pedal on the Petals," operated by student volunteers. Photo by Byong Kwon.

“It was amazing to see literally thousands and thousands of people enjoying the beauty and wonder of mathematics,” said Glen Whitney, MoMath president and co-founder.

Typical visitors were K-8 children and their parents, many of whom were already involved in Math Circles, MATHCOUNTS, and other STEM activities. Many parents sought recommendations on extracurricular math or STEM programs from our volunteers. “There is an insatiable demand for math education resources and activities,” says Byong Kwon, a SIAM student volunteer from George Mason University. “Developing engaging math exhibits for a festival takes much thought and design effort, and volunteers with math backgrounds were invaluable when interacting with a STEM-savvy audience.” 

MoMath president and co-founder Glen Whitney helps young visitors explore the intricacies of the “Amazing Acrobats” exhibit. Photo courtesy of MoMath.

In addition to the MoMath exhibits, the festival offered 27 public lectures throughout the day in the Smithsonian complex. Among the speakers were SIAM fellows Steven Strogatz and Richard Tapia. Asked how he finds the time and motivation to participate in outreach events, Tapia said, “I get to do something that is fun, relaxing and when you succeed, you help somebody. . . this is my therapy.” 

There is a need to show young people that math has many applications, Tapia continued, and that it “is important in all our lives.”

Byong Kwon is a graduate student in applied mathematics at George Mason University. Rachel Levy is SIAM VP for Education, as well as an associate professor in the Department of Mathematics and Associate Dean for Faculty Development at Harvey Mudd College.

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