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By Andy Lickley on

Our 10 top tips for exploring maths in museums

Museums and other informal learning environments provide an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the applications of maths, and to highlight how it influences our everyday lives. Here we share some of our top tips for exploring maths in museums.

Maths is everywhere. Without maths the world, as we know it today, wouldn’t exist. There wouldn’t be computers, money, time or calendars to name a few.

Peoples experience at school tends to determine whether they see themselves as a maths person – or not. Feelings towards maths can also be transferred from others, be that friends, relatives or those that are meet in informal learning settings.

A negative experience tends to stay with people and when faced with maths and those experiences are often all they can think of.

There are two key areas of maths – pure and applied maths.

  • Pure maths tends is to be what we learn at school. It focuses more on numbers and solving problems related to mathematics.
  • Applied maths on the other hand is the study and development of maths to help solve real world problems in other fields such as engineering, economics and technology.

We are most likely to find examples of applied maths in museums.

Museums, and other informal learning spaces, play a big part in helping to improve peoples attitudes towards maths.  By creating a welcoming and supportive environment can give people choice and control so they can participate at a level they feel comfortable at.

Here we share our top tips for exploring maths in museums…

1. Showcase the maths in your collection

Mathematicians’ passion, creativity and problem-solving skills have provided solutions to real-world problems throughout history. Whether it’s space exploration, computing technology, medical discoveries, engineering feats or many other subjects, museums provide excellent opportunities to explore how maths has changed and enriched our lives. Some museum objects – such as abaci, compasses and measuring scales – are easily associated with maths, but every object will have maths at is heart, from design to manufacture and distribution.

2. Build maths confidence

Many people, both visitors and staff, feel anxious when faced with maths, and it’s not uncommon to hear the phrase ‘I can’t do maths’. Help improve attitudes towards maths by creating a welcoming and supportive environment, and give people choice and control so they can participate at a level they feel comfortable with. Provide opportunities for people to contribute and ask questions, and give lots of positive reinforcement such as ‘great problem-solving’ or ‘excellent reasoning skills’ to boost confidence.

3. Use maths curriculum terminology

Most people’s knowledge and experience of maths comes from their experiences in school. Familiarise yourself with the terminology used in the current maths curriculum, but don’t be led or put off by it. Identify where maths themes directly link to your collection, but avoid focusing on specific maths content or making the experience feel like a maths lesson. Using maths language that is used in school will help people recognise when they have a maths-related experience.

4. SHow the applications of maths

Maths is all around us, from how we measure time and how our goods and services are assigned value, to how our journeys are mapped. It can be difficult to recognise where it is applied, so help people to personally connect with the importance and value of maths by showing them where and how it benefits and links to all our everyday lives.

5. highlight and develop maths skills

Whether it’s measuring out the ingredients for making a meal or baking biscuits, estimating the time it takes to do something, or using spatial awareness to pass a football, we all use maths skills in our everyday lives, often without realising. Help people recognise that they already have and use maths skills by highlighting them and positively reinforcing their skills and abilities.

Maths skills include, but are not limited to: Problem solving, observation, pattern spotting, measurement, logic and reasoning, time measuring and estimation.

6. Broaden the perception of who uses maths

From nurses and carpenters to figure skaters and architects, people use maths in most jobs. Whether they are analysing charts, calculating the cost of materials or managing their time, mathematical skills and knowledge are applied every day. These task are not always recognise as maths because this is not how maths was taught in school, so showcase and highlight the diverse jobs, people and tasks that use and benefit from maths.

7. be playful with maths

Draw on the strengths of being an informal environment and develop maths experiences and activities which encourage active participation and social interaction.  Create a sense of awe and wonder about maths by giving people choice and control ,and spark people’s curiosity by inviting them to get hands-on in a creative way, such as by playing a game or completing challenges to make their experience more memorable and inspiring.

8. Promote maths talk and discussion

Design experiences which include opportunities to talk about maths and encourage people to share their views and opinions with you and with each other. For example, discuss what they like about a pattern (can they see how it repeats?), encourage people to estimate amounts, or consider the value they would assign to something. Discussion gives people the opportunity to direct the conversation and follow their own interests.

9. Embed maths throughout

Maths doesn’t need to be specific focus or theme of an activity, it can be threaded through and embedded into any experience that you deliver to showcase where and how maths is used and applied. Find opportunities to make links in activities that are not primarily maths-based, but be specific about what these links are, and avoid general statements such as ‘there is a lot of maths in art’- instead talk about ‘maths in the shapes and spacing used’.

10. Reveal the beauty and wonder in maths

Maths helps us to create order, even spacing, pleasing shapes, patterns and precise angles- all of which can give aesthetic pleasure and be considered beautiful. This beauty can be found all around us in architecture and in nature. Share the beauty and creativity of maths by highlighting interesting examples throughout the museum and in your local environment.


Click here to read more of our Sharing Experience on our Science Museum Group Academy pages. 

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