Of mules and mathematics

May 08, 1992

Is there a painless or fun way to learn math? Not that we ever heard of, which perhaps is why so few American youngsters choose careers in mathematics and science compared to children in Europe and Japan.

It's not that Americans are lazy; it's just that, in an age of instant gratification and material distractions, the situation is not unlike the one described in the story about the farmer, the mule and the 2-by-4: The mule was so smart he could answer any question the farmer put to him -- but you had to get his attention first.

Now Dr. Paul Hanle, executive director of the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, may have found a way to do just that. With an $800,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and a $500,000 gift from IBM, the science center is set to mount the most ambitious exhibit in its history and one of the largest math projects in the nation. Entitled "Language of Patterns," the $1.3 million show will take three years to complete and will become a permanent part of the science center as well as its traveling exhibit.

The math exhibit aims to use hands-on experience to explain basic mathematical problems in fields as diverse as art and music to the mathematics of mapping, genetics and weather forecasting. The goal is to inspire more young people to pursue careers in science and mathematics.

But the project's designers won't have to beat Marylanders over the head to get their attention. Instead it will rely on piquing their interest and tickling their funnybones. Parts of the exhibit will be interactive experiments -- puzzles, brain teasers and 3-D problems -- that are enough fun people won't even think they're doing math.

Only one in 100 Maryland high school graduates now takes up science and math-related careers. If the science center's new exhibit succeeds in raising that figure to just two people in 100 it will have doubled the state's output of career math and science students.

We can't think of a more handsome return on investment or a more sure source of delight for the thousands of people who visit the Maryland Science Center each year.

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