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Math is anything but boring at NYC's newest museum

| Monday, Dec. 31, 2012, 9:01 p.m.

Squealing schoolchildren ride a square-wheeled tricycle and a “Coaster Roller” that glides over plastic acorns. Downstairs, they fit monkey magnets together at the “Tessellation Station.”

This is how math is presented at New York City's brand-new Museum of Mathematics, the only museum of its kind in the United States and a place where math is anything but boring.

“Math's not just memorizing your multiplication tables,” said Cindy Lawrence, the museum's associate director. “Math is a creative endeavor, and that's what we want people to realize.”

The museum, nicknamed MoMath, opened Dec. 15 on two floors of an office building north of Manhattan's Madison Square Park.

The place is the brainchild of executive director Glen Whitney, 42, a mathematician and former hedge-fund analyst who helped raise $23.5 million for the 19,000-square-foot museum.

Whitney said prominent mathematicians gladly shared their expertise for the museum's hands-on exhibits.

“They're absolutely thrilled,” he said. “They're so giving of their time and their energy and their enthusiasm. And, I think a lot of mathematicians sort of get the sense that they are working in a misunderstood field.”

The museum's target audience is fourth through eighth grades, but the exhibits can be enjoyed by younger children on one level while challenging adults on another.

The point of the Coaster Roller is that the acorn-like shapes have a constant diameter although they are not spheres, so the clear plastic sled glides smoothly over them.

The square-wheeled trike works because the wheels align with the exhibit's bumpy track. The bumps are not just any bumps; each one is an upside-down catenary, the shape formed by a chain when you hold both ends.

Other exhibits allow museumgoers to create objects that will be put on display, either by building them with a Tinker Toy-like system called Zome Tools or by computer modeling.

Whitney said one structure built by visitors during MoMath's first weekend was a truncated dodecahedron, which is a three-dimensional shadow of a four-dimensional shape.

The Tessellation Station is a wall that visitors can cover with like-shaped magnets.

Tessellation is the process of creating a plane using repeated geometric shapes, such as a floor tiled with squares or hexagons. MoMath visitors can build tessellations with pieces shaped like rabbits, monkeys and dinosaurs. There also is a Marjorie Rice pentagon, named for an amateur mathematician whose tessellation discoveries were later confirmed by professionals. The museum is highlighting Rice's work in part to spark girls' love of math.

The museum had 700 visitors on its first day, a Saturday, and Lawrence said about 400 school groups have signed up without any advertising by MoMath. “The bookings have been coming fast and furious,” she said.

Sharon Collins, a high-school math teacher at Bronx Preparatory Charter School who brought a group on Monday, said her students enjoyed the square-wheeled tricycle just as much as the younger kids did.

“The students would ride the bike and then think, why am I able to ride the bike,” Collins said. “They saw the real-world connections of math, which are sometimes missing in a classroom setting.”

Jennifer Florez brought her 4-year-old son to MoMath. She said they'll return for more visits.

“He's a little young for some of the exhibits, but there's enough here to keep little ones engaged,” she said. “This will be a museum we'll come back to and revisit as he gets older.”

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Karen Matthews is a staff writer for the Associated Press.

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