Interactive Smithsonian Exhibit Engages Students in Math

New interactive museum exhibit shows students how math is used in everyday life.

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Within the space of a few minutes, kids can program a robot, design a skateboard, control a satellite, shred down a mountain on a snowboard, and, hopefully, learn a thing or two about the math behind it all.

Students test their virtual snowboarding skills at MathAlive!

It's part of Raytheon's MathAlive! exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution's International Gallery in Washington, D.C. Designed for middle-school students, the exhibit doesn't shy away from advanced concepts such as the physics of a skateboard ollie, iPad app programming, and the binary number system.

The games at MathAlive! are fun, but if students don't take the correct angle down the mountain on their snowboard, they'll fall; if the wheel placement on the skateboard they design is off, it won't work.

"We don't want to preach down to kids," says Susan Kirch, creative director of the exhibit. "The idea of the exhibit is to get them excited about math, and to understand that math doesn't live in a classroom or a textbook, it lives in everything they do and like doing. They need to realize it'll allow them to accomplish so many things and it's not really that scary."

The exhibit opened Saturday and will run through June 3 before hitting the road for stops in Phoenix, Huntsville, Ala., and eventually, 12 other cities.

Raytheon's science, technology, engineering, and math initiatives have tended to be interactive, fun, and targeted to a middle-school audience—an age when experts say students' interest in math begins to wane. Other STEM initiatives by the company include The Sum of All Thrills design-a-ride at Disney's Epcot, and MathCounts, a kind of "spelling bee" for math students with a game show feel.

A survey released by the company to coincide with the opening of the exhibit found that about half of middle-school students enjoy doing math outside the classroom, but many don't know its applications in the real world.

Nearly all students realized math was necessary to build a robot or a bridge, but fewer than half of students thought math would be helpful in designing a skateboard, creating clothing, or taking a professional photo.

"It's that middle-school sweet spot we're after. The whole idea is to capture their imaginations and entice them to want to know more," says Jon Kasle, vice president of corporate public relations at Raytheon. "If we don't get them there, we don't have much of a chance of them sticking with math throughout their education career."

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