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Lance Winslow, one of the most prolific authors as well as an all-round wonderful person here at EzinesArticles recently wrote an article about how visiting a math museum can cause someone to get “hooked on mathematics” for life. His article specifically mentioned a museum being built in New York; but as I read his article, I was transported back to my 8th grade year and a field trip to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. That museum did, indeed, hook me on mathematics for life!

During my school years, I lived in a central Indiana city, Anderson, near Indianapolis. A yearly tradition at my junior high school was that 8th grade Science students who earned either an “A” or a “B” for the entire course also earned a year-end field trip to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago as a reward for a successful year. That goal made many of us work very hard to make certain we qualified for the trip. It was a highly coveted prize.

Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry is massive, has displays of interest to both adults and children, and is a vacation destination all by itself. I visited many unique exhibits that day, including a submarine from WWII, a coal mine, a hatchery for baby chicks, and much more; but when I found the mathematics wing, I became transfixed with what I saw–and it DID change my future!

I have no idea how long I stood in front of a huge display that people today would probably think of as Plinko from the Price Is Right game show. This display went floor to ceiling and was about 6 inches thick, had clear glass both front and back with pegs roughly 4 inches apart between the two panes of glass. A conveyor belt ran vertically on the side and each scoop carried a small ball. At the top, the ball rolled to the center and then fell through a hole and began bouncing from peg to peg. At the middle of the display, the ball would then fall into a long column at whatever slot the ball landed. The bottom half of the display consisted of columns under each of the slots. On the glass of this lower part was painted a “normal distribution curve” or a “bell curve.”

In each ball-drop session, balls would bounce from peg to peg and eventually settle to a slot at the mid-line and then fall into a column. As would be expected, most of the balls settled into several of the more centered columns, but some balls bounced their way to the outer edges. As time progressed, the columns began to fill with the balls, usually close to the height indicated by the painted line. At the end of the cycle, the floor opened, the balls fell away, and a new cycle would begin. I was mesmerized!

You might think that the heights of the columns perfectly matched the painted curve, but they never did. It was always close, but never exact. Sometimes one column might be way too tall while others were too short. The next cycle might be close to expectation. What I was witnessing was the very concept of probability–what SHOULD happen versus what ACTUALLY happens. Regardless of small variations, the basics of a normal distribution were there–the middle sections tallest with the heights trailing off to the right and left.

At the time, I knew virtually nothing about a “normal distribution,” but that display with its many repetitions firmly planted in my brain what it all really meant. In high school math and psychology courses, the concept of a normal distribution, the associated percentages for each section, the concept of standard deviation all made perfect sense to me because I had watched it all happen over and over. To extend those concepts to human characteristics like IQ or height seemed natural.

The second display that caught my fancy still exists at the museum today–a whispering booth. The concept here is to have two platforms a large distance apart and facing away from each other. Two people take positions on each platform, again, facing away from each other; and then begin to whisper very quietly into a curved sheet of plexiglass. Shockingly, you hear everything your friend says and that person hears you with no difficulty, but people standing three feet away from you hear NOTHING. For me, it was like magic!

In the eighth grade I had not yet learned anything about conic sections and their special properties. A whispering booth is created on the concept of an ellipse (think football shape) and the fact that any sound or light wave that comes from one focus point will bounce off the sides of the curve to land at exactly the second focus point. The platforms were placed at focus points of an ellipse and the plexiglass curves where a section of an elliptical shape. Whispering from one focus point sent the sound directly to the other focus point to be heard by my classmate, but no one else.

To this day, after a full career of teaching mathematics, I can’t mention “normal distribution” or “ellipse” that I don’t mentally transport back to the Museum of Science and Industry and see it all happen again with the same fascination I felt as an 8th graders. Needless to say, my own children were immersed in that Museum. I highly recommend that no matter where you live, you include the Museum of Science and Industry as a trip destination before your children are grown.

I did some research to determine if both exhibits still exist. The whispering booth still exists, but I could find no information either way about the other exhibit; but this museum has so much to offer that something else will just grab the fascination. In reading some comments about the museum, one mother shared what her small daughter calls the museum–The Museum of Science and INTERESTING. That little girl is exactly right!

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