August 29, 1994|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Staff Writer

If you compliment a friend for whipping up a clever costume from several pieces of fabric, if you commend her for producing dinner perfectly cooked and on time, you're praising her ability to think like a mathematician. When you arrive home from work quicker than your spouse because you took the beltway (the longer way home) while he wrestled with crosstown traffic (the shorter way), you're showing off your own natural math skills.

Making breakfast, constructing a house, sending an astronaut to the moon are pursuits that depend upon innate reasoning most people would describe as "being organized" rather than "being good at math."

And it's such misunderstanding of math that helps to keep it in the "can't get no respect" category of culture, says Raylene Decatur, deputy executive director of the Maryland Science Center.

"I would never walk up to someone and say, 'I can't read,' but it's perfectly acceptable to walk up to somebody and say, 'I can't do math,' " Ms. Decatur says. "When we're talking about mathematics, we send our children incredibly mixed messages."

The Maryland Science Center, in partnership with George Washington University, is working to change those perceptions. Beyond the view of visitors, workers are assembling hands-on displays and interactive activities to demonstrate that math is more than advanced technologies, but an explanation of much that we find in everyday life.

Although it won't open to the public until next June, the Science Center's $1.3 million math project already is taking shape. To date, the main team of 14 museum designers, educators and mathematicians has spent about 25,000 hours in creating nearly three dozen exhibits. What they're building may be the nation's most spectacular math show since the 1964 New York World's Fair exhibit "Mathematica." While that exhibition displayed the history of mathematics, the Science Center's not-yet-titled show will concentrate upon math's contemporary characteristics.

One section concerns finding patterns -- mathematics is often defined as the language of patterns -- in familiar things ranging from printed fabric to seashells. Visitors will create their own patterns from carpet pieces in a "hall of mirrors," which teaches about periodic patterns extending into infinity.

Fixing breakfast

Another area introduces hands-on opportunities to solve problems that are usually identified as scheduling or management tasks. In one activity, a traveling salesman from Baltimore must visit 11 cities around the world. Visitors help him find the shortest route to do so. Another problem requires organizing a block party by assigning the required work so that each volunteer has a task that corresponds to his or her skill.

Many math problems fall into the "fixing breakfast" category, says D.D. Hilke, the director of exhibits for the Science Center. "It's the idea that you can optimize your time by doing some tasks at the same time: pouring the cereal while you're making the coffee. Fixing breakfast is exactly the same kind of problem as scheduling the Olympics: If you know all the pieces to the problem, you can find the answer."

Another section of the show will permit visitors to play with abstractions -- literally. They can handle the world's largest Costa Surface, a tantalizing and twisting form that was discovered within the past decade. They will take a second look at the act of tying a shoelace. They will learn about the oozing "Silly Putty" universe of topology where donuts can turn into coffee cups and baseballs can turn into forks.

Some prototypes for the exhibition -- created with $843,641 from the National Science Foundation and $495,111 from International Business Machines -- already have proved their appeal with museum-goers. One of the most popular exhibits now is known as "The Nine Fire Station Problem." It invites you, as a prudent urban planner, to place fire stations where they can serve the most people at the least cost. When you place the magnetic squares correctly on the big board, it lights up and tilts. It also generates a lot of discussion.

"It's exciting to see three 13- to 15-year-olds trying to do this problem and talking about it," says Dr. Hilke. "We ultimately want exhibitions where visitors can teach each other, where they develop a sense of mastery and pass it on. Ninety percent of the job of developing an exhibit is designing a prototype that will let you do that."

Friends and families often work together at finding solutions, a form of group-think that educators applaud. "Mathematicians work in teams in industry and in the space program," says Jack Price, president of the National Council of Math Teachers. "You just don't go off in the corner and do your math anymore. You have to know where the mathematics connections are in other disciplines and in the real world."

Play time

And you also should know it's safe for math to be fun.