Go Figure! Evaluating a Math Exhibition
From Counting to Chaos:
Mathematics in Science Centers
By Randi Korn and Johanna Jones
Children's play often involves activities that are fundamental to mathematicsarranging, comparing, counting, describing, drawing, estimating, exploring, graphing, investigating, problem solving, and sorting. Yet parents may not think of these "pre-math processes" as mathematical skills or identify them that way when they talk. A recent evaluation of an exhibition from the Minnesota Children's Museum suggests that this is one of the challenges for hands-on museums.
Go Figure! is a traveling exhibition developed by the museum in collaboration with the American Library Association, with funding from the National Science Foundation, Cargill, and 3M. The exhibition is designed to introduce early math concepts to 2- to 7-year-olds through child-size environments based on familiar children's books. Each environment offers hands-on experiences with simple math, opportunities for multiple role-playing, and an area where children and parents can read together. In 1998, the museum asked Randi Korn & Associates (RK&A) to be the evaluators for the project.
RK&A carried out front-end studies during the planning phase, observing 26 parent-child pairs as they interacted with one of two book-based prototype exhibits: The Teddy Bears' Picnic, for 3- to 5-year-olds, and The Doorbell Rang, for 6- to 7-year-olds. (In the final exhibition, Goldilocks and the Three Bears was substituted for The Teddy Bears' Picnic.) Parents were interviewed after the observations.
Later, as part of formative evaluation, a total of 30 family groups (one adult plus one or more children) were observed and interviewed as they interacted with The Doorbell Rang. This exhibit, based on a book by Pat Hutchins, involves making and baking pretend cookies and sharing them with different numbers of guests.
What we found during the early phase of the investigation was
that although most parents were able to describe their children's
actions accurately, they often did not choose the same labels
as the interviewer when asked to use specific terms to identify
those activities. For example, more parents than observers said
that children had "arranged" and "compared" items,
and a few parents said their children had "estimated"
and "graphed," although no observer recorded these
activities. The primary challenge of the exhibition, the museum
team and RK&A concluded, would be to give enough background information
and guidance to promote parent-child interaction with "pre-math"
processes, while at the same time providing an environment that
invites exploration and play.
To aid in this "scaffolding" of concepts, we agreed that more common language, such as "guess the amount" rather than "estimate," would be better on labels. Results also reinforced having the take-home brochure offer more explanations and follow-up activities. The idea was to help parents of younger children recognize that play activities, such as sorting and arranging, are important pre-math processes, and to let parents of older children know that math skills are not necessarily number-based and that getting the "right" answer may not be the purpose of an activity.
Finally, because many parents, particularly those of younger children, appeared comfortable engaging in pretend play, interactive scenarios that incorporate play with practice of pre-math skills were judged an appropriate exhibit strategy.
Later stages of formative evaluation revealed
that a significant factor in adults' understanding of an
exhibit's main message was whether or not they read the
labels. The most effective way of getting their attention and
promoting math behaviors appeared to be posing direct questions.
Nearly half of the adults read a label that asked "Where's the
math in the kitchen?" while only two read the one that proclaimed
"Kids learn through make-believe!" We also concluded that labels
need to explain that even very young children are capable of using
math processes, and that photos or illustrations should show diverse
audiences-men, women, boys, and girls-involved in all activities.
Finally, the evaluation unscored the project's practice
of assigning staff to the exhibit to provide additional hands-on
activities and to aid adults who do not choose to read labels.
Randi Korn and Johanna Jones are director and senior associate, respectively, of Randi Korn & Associates, Alexandria, Virginia. For more information on the exhibition evaluation described here, visit the Project Summary section of their web site at www.randikorn.com. For more information about Go Figure! itself, contact Kristen Hagen at the Children's Museum of Minnesota, 651/225-6000; www.mcm.org.