Math in the Making: Q&A with Andee Rubin & Scott Pattison

mathmaking 260x260

May 26th, 2016

Andee Rubin, Senior Scientist at TERC, has done research and development in the fields of mathematics education, educational technology, and informal learning for over 30 years.  She is particularly interested in how mathematical reasoning can be fostered in informal environments by a combination of thoughtful design and expert facilitation. Scott Pattison, Ph.D., is a researcher at the Institute for Learning Innovation and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. He studies STEM education, learning, and interest development in free-choice and out-of-school environments, including museums, science centers, and everyday settings. CAISE recently interviewed them about their current project, Math in the Making.


[CAISE] Tell us about Math in the Making. How and why did it get started?

[AR&SP] The two of us (Andee and Scott) have been working together on informal math education projects for many years. Andee’s involvement in math in out-of-school settings began with the Math Momentum in Science Centers project, about 15 years ago;TERC partnered with ASTC and 13 science centers to consider how math could be made more visible and approachable in science centers. The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) was one of the partners in Math Momentum and the Design Zone project grew out of that collaboration. Scott then entered the picture as a program and exhibit developer, and later evaluator, on Design Zone and he and Andee continued their collaboration on REVEAL. In this time, we’ve seen a growing interest in the topic of mathematics in museums and other informal learning institutions. In our conversations with colleagues, we’ve also felt a need to bring professionals together and talk about what we know, what we don’t know, and what next steps for the field should be.


At the same time, we’ve also seen math continuously sidelined as a topic within the informal STEM education field more broadly. We all know it’s important and underlies every STEM topic, but as a field we have struggled to understand how we can support math learning in our settings and how it relates to other types of work in the areas of science, engineering, and technology. Also, we know many of the children and adults we try to engage have narrow preconceptions, or even negative associations, of mathematics that can serve as a barrier to math-focused informal learning experiences.


With all this in mind, we started to talk about how mathematics might be integrated into other informal STEM topics, to reach a broader audience and position math more prominently within STEM. Making and tinkering are hugely popular approaches in ISE right now and they offer rich opportunities for math exploration and learning. Integrating math with making and tinkering is something, we felt, had great potential but that the field wasn’t talking about, so the idea for a workshop was born.



Will this project focus on any particular areas of mathematics, for example measurement or ratio?


Ultimately, we believe that all areas of mathematics are relevant to making and tinkering. However, for those that are new to this topic, it can be overwhelming to think about the many potentially relevant aspects of math and mathematical thinking. So, as a starting point, for this workshop we will be focusing on geometric and spatial reasoning, similar to what the Exploratorium investigated in the Geometry Playground project, and algebraic reasoning and proportional thinking, as in OMSI’s Access Algebra/Design Zone project and the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Math Moves! project.


It’s instructive to examine these three projects to see how mathematics was expressed in a museum exhibit—and how the ways in which visitors experienced math differed from their more common school-based experiences. In Geometry Playground, for example, visitors climb on geometric sculptures and fit together large tiles in tasks that require at least two people to work together. In Design Zone, there are also exhibits that require collaboration. For example, one of the most popular components of Design Zone is a large Etch-A-Sketch-like drawing machine, in which one person must control the horizontal movement of the pen while another controls its vertical movement. These characteristics of embodiment and collaboration stand in stark contrast to the manner in which math is typically experienced in school.


While we don’t know yet how these math topics will manifest in making environments, we think they have significant potential to be generative lenses. For example, many making activties require the design of three-dimensional objects out of inherently two-dimensional materials. These range from carpentry to sewing, working with hard, solid materials like wood to soft materials that enclose space, like fabric. In terms of algebra, we believe that the idea of functional reasoning may be particularly applicable. For example, making and tinkering experiences that involve gears have a built-in functional relationship between the size and position of the gears and the resulting motion. Understanding this function is critical to making a machine that behaves in a particular way.


Measurement is certainly fundamental to making and tinkering and we believe it’s a fruitful avenue of integration for educators and researchers to explore. We decided to not make it a focus of Math in the Making, however, because numbers, arithmetic, and measurement are often the first, and only, types of mathematics that individuals think about when they hear the term “math.” These concepts are often closely associated with narrow perceptions and negative stereotypes of mathematics (e.g., Our hope is that through the Math in the Making project, we can broaden our own perspectives, as educators and researchers, about mathematics and the opportunities for math to be integrated with making and tinkering experiences. This broadening of perspectives will, we hope, then translate into new projects and opportunities that expose children and adults to a new appreciation of math in their lives.

The Math in the Making project will also be a chance for participants to share suggestions for other aspects of mathematics that connect to making and tinkering, such as precision, rate of change, and measurement.



Is this new project focused on integrating math learning into existing making and tinkering activities, or on rethinking the design of spaces and choices of materials for their math learning potential from the beginning of development?


We are interested in both types of opportunities. Overall, this project is about making connections across communities and motivating new partnerships and initiatives. Some of those might involve mathematicians and educators in the making community working together to find ways to highlight the math in existing making and tinkering experiences. Others might focus on creating new programs or designed spaces that integrate math and making from the beginning.


There is certainly an advantage to starting from scratch, since the goals and approaches related to integrating math and making can be clearly articulated from the outset and important decisions can be made about how the two aspects complement each other, how important it is for visitors to be aware of the integration of mathematics, etc. However, integrating math with existing programs and spaces can be a way of reinvigorating and re-energizing those experiences for visitors. This is the approach that the Math Momentum project took, helping museum professionals to engage visitors in math and mathematical thinking using existing programs, materials, and exhibits. This was also part of our approach to developing new exhibit activities for the Design Zone traveling exhibition. Several of the exhibits, such as Balancing Art and Designing for Speed, were “mathematized” versions of classic Exploratorium exhibits. Building on the inherent appeal of these activities, we created new design affordances that allowed and motivated visitors to explore the mathematical aspects of the phenomena.



How much have you thought about, and/or plan to address the potential “buzz kill” that might result from, forgive the term, the “mathematization” of engaging making activities?


This has emerged as one of the fundamental questions of this project and hopefully a key discussion area during the workshop: How important is it that learners recognize the mathematics in these experiences? From our own perspectives, we believe that math is fundamental to all STEM fields and to being a literate and informed citizen, more broadly. Therefore, we think it’s critical that we as a field help children and adults to recognize the mathematics all around them, broaden their perspectives on math and mathematical thinking, build new math skills, and come to see themselves as people who can and do use math throughout their lives. Hence  some of the conversations at the workshop were focused focus on this issue of “math identity.”


We know, however, that many children and adults have very narrow perspectives on what counts as mathematics and that making the math explicit can elicit negative memories about school math or negative self-perceptions about math abilities. This is a challenge that our field needs to explore and overcome. Designed informal learning environments have huge potential in this area. These are spaces that allow visitors to engage in mathematical thinking at their own pace, in their own way, pursuing their own goals, similar to everyday mathematics. Unlike everyday mathematics, however, educators and designers can be purposeful about the tools, resources, and messages that are provided to support learning and help visitors broaden their perspectives on mathematics as they engage in the activities. We’ve already seen some successful models, such as the Design Zone exhibition, in which a combination of labels, mathematical affordances, and symbols were able to convey to visitors that they had engaged in math, and algebra more specifically, without undermining their enjoyment of the experiences. This same approach might be more broadly successful in making and tinkering programs.


For more information about Math in the Making, visit the project page and review the CAISE pre-conference online forum.