It’s rare that I get to spend a weekday with just Owen. But the occasion arose this past Monday when he was off from school for Emancipation Day, while Sasha, who attends preschool part-time, was not. To make it special I suggested we do a couple of things: 1) sushi lunch (he loooves it) and 2) an activity that doesn’t cater to Sasha’s age group.
For the latter, I offered a few ideas, including the new MathAlive! exhibit at Smithsonian’s Ripley Center. When I told Owen what it all about and showed him photos online, he didn’t hesitate with a response: “Let’s do that! I want to do math!” And with that, my little nerd and I had our day planned.
I use “nerd” loosely, as the promos for MathAlive! make it look more like an X Games event than a museum exhibit, featuring images of snowboarders, skaters, and BMXers and claiming that “Math has never been so sweet!” The descriptions make it sound even more rad, promising nearly 40 unique, interactive experiences, including video games, robotics, movie making, and many more hands-on installments. Both Owen and I had very high expectations.
And I am happy to report that MathAlive! does not disappoint. It really is sweet (make that suh-weet!) and rad. It’s fun, engaging, and challenging. It’s cool to look at, both as a whole and by individual display. In a nutshell, it is one impressive exhibit.
The whole thing is housed in the Ripley Center’s International Gallery, just past the Discovery Theater. Walking in, it almost felt like I was entering an 80’s arcade — the lights are dim, lots of video screens are on display, electronic sounds reverberating.
The exhibit is divided into seven thematic categories that show how math is used in a real world context: “Outdoor Action” features adventure sports, “Build Your World” focuses on the environment, “Future Style” is about style and design, “Kickin’ It” spotlights entertainment, “Game Plan” presents video and other games, “Robotics and Space” is exactly that, and there’s the “Resource Center” with general background info on everything.
Every area contains displays, both physical and digital, that explain how math figures into the concepts. While 6-year-old Owen could read most of them and figure out how to work the electronics, I definitely had to explain the math part (they’ve barely covered basic addition in his Kindergarten class). Even then, a lot of it was over his head, but he could still do every interactive there — and he, make that we, had fun with just about all of them. There are so many, I’ll just mention some of the highlights, but I can assure you there are much, much more.
Those photos of skaters and snowboarders on the promo materials aren’t just for show. There are actually a couple of games that use them. One demonstrates how angles work with a snowboarding jump 3D video game, another shows how to modify variables for optimal effect, by adjusting board length, wheel size and placement in designing a digital skateboard.
A rock climbing wall where guests can do a horizontal climb across explains a mathematical scatter plot.
On the Curiosity Rover (one of Owen’s favorites), you need to program coordinates to move a digital rover around to pick up virtual rocks to be analyzed for water.
Another space-related station is On Target, which features a 3-D version of the International Space Station and a Robotic Arm that you move to different locations.
At the Mix it Up station, we got to explore the mathematics of rhythm as we played with different musical instrument sounds and the patterns of the music.
Style Revolution lets you do a 360-degree photo shoot using freeze-motion techniques. This one was really fun, not only because you could play it back immediately, but you got to watch people do funny poses and action shots.
You really have to go check out the rest for yourself — this exhibit is all about the interactive experience. And something I consider a big bonus is its location. The Ripley Center is one of those museums that tends to elude the tourist radar, so it’s never very crowded. Granted we were there on a weekday, but there was hardly a wait for any of the activities, and if something was already in use, there was plenty more to explore until it was free.
As for ages, older children would definitely get the most out of it, but I think even younger children (Owen is only 6) could enjoy it, too. Hey, with lots of buttons to push, a dancing and music games, and that photo shoot, I may even take Sasha, after all.
And P.S., for an excellent sushi/Japanese food meal, I highly recommend Kushi located at 465 K Street NW.