A Day in Digitopolis, Part II

Radiance by Matt ElsonWho knew infinity could be so beautiful? I’ve returned with Part II of the Digitopolis event post (Part I can be found here) and thought I would start it off with one of the stars of the show! The above image was taken inside an Infinity Box, one of multiple creations by Los Angeles-based artist, Matt Elson. Matt’s boxes have been exhibited at colleges, science centers, festivals, and museums. He generously loaned us two (titled Radiance, and You & Me Together) for our math event.

You and Me Together by Matt ElsonThe boxes are designed to be infinite, interactive environments that play with your perception and inspire inquisitiveness and wonder. They were in constant use during the event, and there were lots of shrieks of amazement, enthusiastic explosions of “Cool!” and long, drown out utterances of “Woooooow…”

infinity marissaDigitopolis was not without its celebrities too, including the King of Numbers himself. I speak, of course, of the Mathamagician.

mathamagiciansThat’s real-life mathamagician Brent Ferguson on the right, grinning away under the pointy hat covered with equations. He’s math faculty at the Lawrenceville School, and in 2013, he was awarded the National Museum of Mathamatics’ Rosenthal Prize for innovation in math teaching. On the left is Dr. Dan Fishman, a high school math teacher, who, like Brent, has unbridled enthusiasm for all things math.

Together, Brent and Dan staffed the “Ask the Mathamagician” table. Kids could walk up and ask them any question they could possibly think of involving math. We had prompt cards on the table to get things started:

Why do you like math?
What’s an irrational number?
What’s the biggest number there is?
Why is math important?
Why does a negative times a negative equal a positive?
Is zero a number?
What’s a perfect number?
What’s that crazy math thing with the exclamation point?
What’s an imaginary number?
Know any good math jokes?
What’s your favorite equation?

Brent and Dan also brought a whole bunch of math toys and puzzles with them. It was an irresistible treasure trove of numerical goodies.

mathamagician 2Also at the Mathamagican’s table were three Digitopolis “tourism” posters for families to take home (the posters were inspired by this fantastic NASA concept). The first two posters are by Princeton University senior, Aliisa Lee. The third poster is by freshman Demi Zhang.

city poster by aliisa leemines poster by aliisa leeevent poster by demi zhangA quick word about the Mathamagician’s costume. The robes and hat were made by freshman James Jared, who ingeniously modified this Jedi robe. Then Casandra used silver and gold metallic fabric markers to draw real, honest-to-goodness math equations on them. We snapped a couple shots so you can get the full effect!

robes 2robes 1The Mathamagician wasn’t the only celebrity in Digitopolis that day. Does this gentleman look familiar to you?

albert einsteinYup, it’s Albert Einstein. Or rather, professional reenactor Bill Agress playing Albert Einstein. Mr. Einstein circulated the event floor, chatted with kids, answered questions about his life and work, tried an activity or two, and posed for pictures. And yes – he wasn’t wearing any socks.

In addition to being one of world’s most famous theoretical physicists (and no slouch at mathematics either), did you know that Einstein was a resident of Princeton? He emigrated here in 1933 to join the faculty of at the newly-created Institute for Advanced Study.

The Historical Society of Princeton put together a terrific mini-exhibit on Einstein in Princeton (my favorite is that photo of him wearing the fuzzy slippers). Families were invited to take home a map of notable Einstein haunts around town as well.

historical societyThey also whipped up an Einstein quiz for kids to try (the answers, by the way are B, A, B, C, B, C). The prize was a cool little puzzle. I found some terrific ones at Oriental Trading Company (the ones below are from the “Mind Teaser Game Assortment”).

maze prizesElsewhere in Digitopolis, another math wizard was hard at work. This is Emile Oshima, a junior at Princeton and master of the Japanese abacus. Next to him is senior Rei Mastsuura.

abacus races 1In addition to having Emile and Rei teaching kids how to use an abacus, Emile raced kids (and parents!) armed with electronic calculators to see who could reach the product of 3 x 3 multiplication problem faster. Emile always won. He was lightning fast!

abacus races 2Meanwhile, at another event table, another calculator was keeping kids busy. But this calculator was rather…odd.

crazy calculator 1The “Crazy Calculator” was designed by the Princeton Society of Women Engineers using 2 Makey Makey sets. Have you seen Makey Makey? It’s pretty awesome. Each set consists of wired alligator clips, a small central board, and computer software.

Attach the alligator clip to anything that conducts electricity, and you can do all sorts of crazy things. Turn bananas into a keyboard, or use Play-doe like a video game controller. The Women Engineers used all sorts of things to build their calculator – tin foil, wet sponges, water, metal objects, shaving cream, flowers, even high fives!

crazy calculator 2Interspersed with the other event tables were 5 “Pop Up History” activities that tied together math and history. These tables were designed to be simple, stand-alone, and un-staffed.

global counting 1At “Global Counting,” kids could see diverse numerical systems on a big display board (the book Go Figure: A Totally Cool Book About Numbers (DK, 2005) was very helpful in this regard). Then, kids copied their favorite number system on a 3.5″ x 17″ strip of paper, and used yarn to turn it into a little scroll.

global counting 2At another table were Möbius strips, a must-have for any hands-on math event. Discovered in 1858 by German mathematician August Ferdinand Möbius, the strip demonstrates how a piece of paper can have only one side! All it takes is a 2.5″ x 28″ piece of poster board, tape, and some instructions.

mobius stripsAnother hands-on math must-have? Tangram puzzles. Originating in China, tangram puzzles were first introduced to Europe in the 19th century. There are plenty of inexpensive tabletop tangrams out there, but we decided to splurge on some giant foam floor size versions (thinner ones purchased from SimplyFun, chunkier ones from Fat Brain Toys). Later, these were donated to a local non-profit family shelter.

tangram puzzlesThe fourth Pop Up History table was called “Tally Hides.” Some American Indian tribes kept track of important things by making tally marks on animal hides and tree bark. Definitely a cool way to count!

tally hides 1Before the event, we cut 9″ x 12″ pieces of brown paper into the shape of a hide. During the event, kids wrinkled the paper, flattened it out, and used markers to draw the wildlife they’ve seen around their homes and town. Then, they estimated how many times they’d seen each critter, and made a tally mark next to it. The project is originally from The Secret Life of Math (Williamson Books, 2005).

tally hides 2The final history table was called “Tile Tessellations.” Decorating surfaces with tiles spans many cultures, and many centuries. But did you know that the geometry in Early Islamic art was so intricate, it was unrivaled for over 500 years?

tiles 1Kids put their tiling and tessellating skills to work by gluing 3/4″ paper tiles to a 6″ x 6″ square of tagboard. This project was really bright and beautiful.

tiles 2That’s it for history – how about some games? JaZams, our local family-owned toy store hosted a event area called “The Game is Afoot.” JaZams chose 8 math games for various age ranges (you can see their official selections here), and set each of them up on a series of tables. Kids could drop by to play the waaaaay popular Rubik’s Race…

game is afoot 1Or entire families could take a break and play Number Ninjas.

game is afoot 2Heck, maybe you could even beat Einstein at Qbitz! After the event, the games were donated to a local non-profit family shelter.

games is afoot 3For the musically adventurous, there was “Musical Fractions,” an activity composed by senior Matt Smith and freshman Demi Zhang. Kids used percussion instruments (assorted floor drums, wood blocks, maracas, a wooden fish, claves, and sand blocks) to learn how to play, and recognize, wholes, halves, quarters, and eighths. They also learned about musical structure and patterns.

musical fractionsEach instructional session ranged between 10 to 15 minutes. I wasn’t able to catch an entire one, but I did manage to grab a few seconds of this one. Just listen to those fractions!


I have one last thing to share with you. Team Digitopolis in their awesome event t-shirts.

front of shirtsAt big events like this, my staff and I wear costumes so that people can find us quickly in the crowds (helloooo Victorian Steampunk spelunker). For Digitopolis, however, I decided to go with t-shirts, and asked student artist Aliisa Lee to design them. Here’s a closer look at her beautiful cityscape!

digitopolis by aliisa leeOn the backs were our favorite numbers. Let’s hear it for 9, 2, and 11! Woot woot!

back of shirtsI’d like to send a million, trillion, zillion, googolplex thanks to everyone who made this event possible, and who generously gave their time to make math fun, approachable, unusual and fun. An extra shout out to the Princeton University students, and the student athletes who volunteered so energetically and enthusiastically! Thank you so much, everyone!

Winter is Coming

winter is comingIt’s a diorama, a keepsake box, a mini exhibit, AND a lesson in ecology! Open the lid of this winter landscape and you’ll find the creatures that hibernate, burrow underground, and tunnel underneath the snow, complete with an information card!

open woodland boxWe read Over and Under the Snow, written by Kate Messner, and illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal (Chronicle Books, 2011). A father and child ski over the deep snow in the woods. Even though it’s a world of white, signs of life are everywhere – squirrel, owl, deer, snowshoe hare, and fox. But under the snow is yet another world. Shrews and voles run in tunnels. Bullfrogs burrow in the mud, bears hibernate, and a queen bee sleeps, waiting for the first signs of spring. The book ends with the child in a cozy bed, dreaming of nature. An absolutely beautiful book, with gorgeous, bold illustrations set against snowy white.

You’ll need:

  • 1 box with a lid
  • Brown construction paper
  • 1 woodland template, printed on 8.5″ x 11″ white card stock
  • An oval of blue construction paper (approximately 2.5″ x 4.5″)
  • An oval of silver mirror board (approximately 2.5″ x 4.5″)
  • A rectangle of brown wrapping paper (approximately 7.5″ x 10.5″)
  • A smaller rectangle of brown wrapping paper (approximately 3.75″ x 4.5″)
  • White cotton balls
  • 4 small clear plastic rhinestones (optional)
  • Scissors, tape, and glue for construction
  • Metallic markers for decorating
  • Hot glue

First, find a box with a lid. I used white cardboard pencil boxes with hinged lids from Discount School Supply (a dozen cost $17 so a bit of a splurge). To give the outside of the box a little pop of color, we put a strip of patterned tape around the perimeter, but this is optional (or, just use markers to decorate!).

Line the inside of the box (including the underside of the lid) with brown construction paper. Glue an oval of blue construction paper on the right side of the box lid. Cut and color the bear, bee, vole, shrew, and bullfrog from the template, and glue them inside the box. Use markers to draw burrows, dirt specks, and tree roots (we used metallic markers, and they looked great on the brown paper!). Glue the information card to the inside of the box as well.

open woodland boxClose the lid of the box, and glue an oval of silver mirror board to the right of the box, directly above the blue construction paper oval. If you don’t have mirror board, use tin foil.

Now for the tree! Use a brown marker to draw vertical lines on a tall, 7.5″ x 10.5″ rectangle of brown wrapping paper. Then squish, crinkle, and wrinkle the paper. The more wrinkly it gets, the better!

woodland tree step 1Roll the paper into a tube and secure it with tape. Cut 4 tabs in the bottom of the tube (each tab should be about 1.5″ long). Fold the tabs outwards. Later, you’ll use these tabs to attach the tree to the box lid:

woodland tree step 2Cut 5-6 tabs in the opposite end of the tube (these tabs are much longer, about 5″). Fold them out gently, then twist them to create the branches of your tree.

final steps woodland treeHot glue (or tape) the tree to the lid of the box. If you’d like to add a log to your landscape, use a brown marker to draw horizontal lines on a 3.75″ x 4.5″ rectangle of brown wrapping paper. Crinkle the paper, then roll the paper into a tube and secure it with tape. The final length of the log should be 3.75″. Set the finished log aside for a moment.

Glue white cotton ball “snow” to the lid of the box. Then cut and color the squirrel, owl, deer, snowshoe hare, fox, and tree leaves from the template. Glue these items, plus the log, to your winter landscape.

winter is comingFor some extra sparkle, I hot glued 4 small clear plastic rhinestones to the edge of the lake. But this, of course, is optional.

frozen lakeYour winter landscape is complete! Well, maybe not quite complete…

jon snowBet you a 33 pound chocolate dragon egg he’s coming back in season six.

Great Snakes!

great snakesYou’re walking through the jungle when, suddenly…a snake slides onto your shoulders. Stop! Do NOT panic! It’s perfectly safe. This snake is made out of self-adhesive foam!

You’ll need:

First, trace the 2 halves of your snake onto a 9″ x 12″ sheet of self-adhesive foam (I purchase my sheets from Blick Art Supplies and Michaels Craft store). The “head” half of my snake was approximately 11″ long. The “tail” half was approximately 12″ long.

Cut both snake halves out, but don’t peel the backing from them just yet. The next step is to cut, peel, and stick little pieces of foam to your snake’s body. I did a triangle pattern, but stripes also look fantastic. And don’t forget the eye!

snake halvesWhen the snake is decorated to your satisfaction, peel the backing off the big pieces and stick them to the front of your shirt. It looks best if you wrap the ends a little past your shoulders.

finished shoulder snakeIf you’d like to add a tongue to your snake, fork one end of a 2″ piece of curling ribbon, and stick it to the underside of the snake’s head.

snake tongueIt’s important to note that the snake doesn’t go all the way around your neck. This foam doesn’t do too well on long, uneven curves. I didn’t want it to buckle, pop off, and tangle in (or stick to) longer hair.

snake from the backI tested the foam on plain t-shirts, as well as shirts with embroidery, plain decals, and glitter decals. All of them were fine, with the minor exception being the glitter decal. The foam did take some glitter off with it, but no more than comes off when you rub the decal with your fingers. However, when I peeled the foam off a mesh sports jersey with vinyl numbers, bits of the foam ripped off the snake and stuck to the vinyl numbers! So if you’re wearing a mesh sports jersey, peel slowly, and know that you might have to do a little extra peeling where the foam sticks.

And there you have it! A super easy shoulder snake, ready for your next story time. May I suggest Snake, His Story by James Marshall? It’s one of my favorites!