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How Can You Use a Snowboard to Make an Acute Angle?

An new super-interactive exhibition at the Smithsonian's Ripley Center teaches math, science and engineering skills, but don't tell the kids because the gallery is a huge playground

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The Boardercross snowboarding activity teaches students about angles and turning

At the Ripley Center‘s International Gallery is a math lesson masquerading as a video game arcade. Crowds of excited children ride bikes up a mountain, control robotic satellite arms and play computerized musical instruments. What they don’t realize is that the activities are also teaching them about graphing, coordinates and trigonometry. The new MathAlive! exhibition‘s goal is simple: to bring abstract math lessons to students in a fun, everyday format.

“Our design approach was to embrace the notion that math doesn’t necessarily just live in textbooks and on chalkboards, but in the world around us,” says Susan Kirch, the curator and creative director of the exhibition. “By providing activities that students already like—things like sports and music and dance and robotics—we let them be active, so that the math principles inherent in all those pursuits emerge.”

Kirch says the exhibition, which opened on Saturday and will run through June 3, already seems like it has achieved this goal. “Yesterday, we had one teacher come over to us, just absolutely thrilled, saying that one of her students was yelling, ‘I just did an acute angle on a snowboard!’ That kind of delight is contagious.”

The large exhibition features a number of themed galleries—outdoors, sports, entertainment, design and robotics—that include activities specially designed to impart specific math lessons. “When the student first come in, it just feels like a big playground to them,” says Kirch. “Their first reaction is to try to race around and play everything, but then they settle down a little bit, and they start to absorb and appreciate the math.”

The show was designed with middle schoolers in mind, but crowds of younger children—and even some adults—have already been observed enjoying the many interactive displays. “I think it appeals to the kid in all of us, because we’ve been seeing all the teachers and the security guards and the Smithsonian personnel wanting to jump on those snowboards.”

The snowboards are part of Boardercross, one of the most popular elements in the exhibition. As multiple players compete against each other, racing down the mountain, they must make decisions about angles and velocity that get them down the hill fastest without a wipe out.

Other innovative activities include a skateboard design game that teaches participants about fulcrums, a space capsule simulation, where students use a robotic arm to grab satellites by manipulating x, y and z variables, and a music and dancing activity that helps visitors better understand camera angles and timing. Students can learn engineering and science skills, too, at interactive stations that enable them to plan city infrastructure projects or manage limited power and water supplies in emergency situations.

After the show’s finishes its premier run at the International Gallery, it will travel to the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix, and then the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Hunstville, Alabama. It is an element of the Raytheon Company’s MathMovesU program, which uses a range of different learning programs to keep middle and high school students engaged in math and science.

Kirch says one positive effect of the exhibition is boosting students’ confidence in their math skills. “We hear again and again from kids that they think they’re not good at math, but the reality is that they really are but they don’t realize it because they don’t see its relevance to their own lives,” she says. “I think we’re already achieving our goal in that sense—they are starting to realize, ‘Hey, there really is math in all this stuff that I already do.’”

MathAlive! is on display at the Ripley Center’s International Gallery through June 3, 2012.

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