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Exhibit aims to make world of numbers add up for kids

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Exhibit aims to make world of numbers add up for kids

Aug. 14, 2012
MathAlive entertains, but it's serious fun for firms like Raytheon

This math, however, was an entirely different matter. Mikaela "shredded" (rode fast) on a virtual snowboard, made a 360-degree video of herself and - her favorite - created a rainbow of colors in an interactive dance game using binary numbers and her silhouette.

MathAlive is designed to be fun for kids with 40 interactive exhibits on display through Sept. 9. But it's serious business for co-sponsor Raytheon, which is on a mission to boost lagging interest in math and science among kids in Tucson and the U.S.

As a defense contractor, Raytheon can hire only U.S. citizens. And as baby boomers reach retirement age, the company - whose missile-manufacturing operation is one of Tucson's largest and best-paying employers - finds itself challenged to find qualified employees.

Twenty to 25 percent of the nation's workforce will retire over next five to eight years, said Bernie Merwald, vice president of engineering at Raytheon Missile Systems in Tucson. "We need to ensure we have a steady pipeline of workforce-ready graduates, people who are ready to step in and do math and science kinds of work," Merwald said.

Some students, however, seem to have lost the passion for math and science that existed when Merwald was a kid in the 1960s.

"About fourth or fifth grade, a lot of kids lose interest in math," Merwald said. "They are outstanding in math in first, second and third grade, and then all of the sudden, something occurs. I don't know what that is."

So why aren't kids crazy about math?

"In the '50s and '60s you had the space race, putting a man on the moon," Merwald said. "In the '70s and the '80s, we had the development of the communications network and the computer revolution."

The nation lacks a national objective that drives kids to be part of the latest advances in life-changing technology, Merwald said. Girls and minority students are even less inclined to pursue careers in math and science.

"We need to foster the idea that math is cool," he added.

That's where MathAlive comes in. Launched last spring at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., it broke admission records for traveling exhibits there before moving to Phoenix. Hands-on activities include video-game programming, a rock-climbing wall and robotics.

Traveling math exhibit

Several years ago, Raytheon helped create an exhibit at the Epcot theme park in Florida called the Sum of all Thrills, where visitors design their own ride and take a virtual spin on it.

Building on that success, Raytheon wanted to create a hands-on experience to show the thrills associated with math, science and engineering that they could take around the nation and the world.

"We came up with this idea of a traveling math exhibit," said Colleen Niccum, director of community and government relations at Raytheon Missile Systems, who was involved in early focus groups that resulted in the creation of MathAlive.

"It shows the math behind the things kids love. Kids start to see there is math in everything they do, and it removes some of the anxiety they can feel with math."

Being bad at math has become something of a punch line, Niccum said.

"In our culture, it's acceptable to be bad at math," she said. "You'd never joke about not being good at reading, but we laugh about not being good in math."

The creation of MathAlive is part of an ongoing effort to get kids interested in math.

"Our industry will be in jeopardy if we don't develop this talent for the future," Niccum said. "The U.S. is in jeopardy of falling behind other countries."

$72 million contribution

Since 2005, Raytheon has contributed $72 million to science, technology, engineering and math - or STEM - education in the U.S., Niccum said. Among math and science education programs sponsored by Raytheon:

• MathMovesU, a program designed to engage middle school students in math and science.

• Scholarships and grants to teachers and students.

• Engineering is Elementary, an engineering education program for elementary school teachers.

• MathCounts, a competition for middle school students.

• Math Science & Technology FunFest for Tucson students.

• Programs aimed at encouraging girls and students of diverse ethnic backgrounds to pursue STEM careers.

• Local tutoring and mentoring programs.

Laura Martin, senior director of strategic initiatives at the Science Center, said exhibits like MathAlive can provide something schools sometimes cannot - excitement about math.

"Schools spend a lot of time on drilling, and the interesting aspects of math and science can come second," she said.

With all eyes on standardized test scores, math teachers across the state spend much of their day prepping for tests, said teacher Krista Gypton, who recently visited MathAlive with 53 students from Vail Blended Learning, a new middle school with an emphasis on math, science and engineering.

Accountability is important, but that style of teaching doesn't leave much room for critical thinking and interactive learning, Gypton said. It also takes the fun out of math, she said.

"Students are learning to be great test takers," she said, "but not great thinkers."

Hands-on programs and her school's partnership with Raytheon help students envision future careers in math, she said. Raytheon engineers helped her school build a virtual-reality program.

"It's business investing in the future of their industry," Gypton said.

MathAlive is expected to attract about 40,000 visitors in Phoenix, said Sherri Sauntry, vice president of marketing and sales at the Arizona Science Center. In addition to Raytheon, the exhibit is sponsored by JPMorgan Chase and APS.

"Phenomenal"

"It's been phenomenal," Sauntry said. "The parents love it, and more importantly, the kids do, too. They are entertained here, and they walk away with learning."

Jane Hubbard organized a recent field trip of about two dozen home-schooled Tucson students through Christian Home Educators of Tucson - Northwest. She explored the exhibit with her three sons, Joshua, Thomas and William.

She said the exhibit helps get students excited about the possibilities. "Math gives students so many more opportunities in their future careers," she said.

Carol Johnson brought her daughter, Elizabeth, 12, and son Joshua, 7, on the field trip. Josh is keen on math, but Elizabeth would just as soon spend her time writing.

Johnson helped her kids design a skateboard and then tried it out virtually, to see how much "pop" it had. Minor adjustments made drastic changes in performance.

She and Elizabeth helped move a rover across a virtual planet by programming its path.

Tucsonan Alexia Avey's love of science was reinforced at the exhibit. The 15-year-old, home-schooled student took first place in the Southern Arizona Regional Science and Engineering Fair earlier this year. She and her science partner, Wes MacDonald, 17, traveled to New York with their project, which studied the DNA on cactus thorns and the impact on infections.

"A lot of girls aren't interested in math and science, but we need girls out there in the field," said Avey, who plans on becoming a marine biologist. "It can't be all guys."

"Somebody has to be there"

The need for engineers will grow, with hiring in the aerospace industry expected to increase by 10 percent in the next five or six years, Raytheon's Merwald said.

Programs like MathAlive can pique interest in children, especially if the concepts they learn and see at the exhibit are reinforced in school and at home, said Jeff Goldberg, dean of the University of Arizona College of Engineering.

His college has been successful in recruiting more women and minorities and in raising the bar for all engineering students. Goldberg works with industry partners like Raytheon and other large and small companies in an effort to provide the engineers they need.

"Almost every kid that comes to me had someone who gave them a push - a teacher, a counselor, a mom, a dad, an aunt, an uncle," Goldberg said. "Somebody has to be there when that kid is in seventh or eighth or ninth grade to give them that push and say: 'Hey, it looks like you have talent. This is exciting.' If you don't have that push, it's really hard to get kids to go to the next level."