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!

Vroom Vroom, Zoom Zoom

mr. frumble pickle carPickle car anyone? The world of Richard Scarry is full of fantastical vehicles, and at last Saturday’s library event, we invited kids create a wheeled wonder and give it a test drive! For a slideshow gallery of some seriously fun vehicles, scroll to the bottom of the post.

The program was called Cars and Trucks and Things That Go, which is, of course, the title of one of Richard Scarry’s books (Golden Books, 1998). We were joined by our friends at scienceSeeds (who you might remember from this post). They brought all sorts of goodies. Little motors to take apart, homemade remote control cars, programmable LEGO cars, and this snazzy traffic light that demonstrated how simple circuits work. The back of the traffic light was open so kids could see how it was wired.

traffic lightBut scienceSeed’s most popular station by far was a set of 4 wooden ramps for car races. If you don’t have wooden ramps handy, cardboard ramps work too!

racing rampsMy library coordinated the car decoration portion of the program. Here’s how it worked. Kids arrived at the front of the gallery and were given two choices of vehicle. A “dragster” (which was a 7/8″ x 2″ x 8″ jewelry box), or a “truck,” (which was a 4 ½” X 4 ½” x 9” craft box).

Older kids could skip the box and opt to build a car from scratch using craft sticks and balsa wood. Then, they attempted to get their creation down a race ramp without “cracking” a plastic egg passenger. Here’s an intrepid trio who worked together to design the ultimate vehicle.

engineersOnce kids selected a box, we taped two, 4″ plastic straws to its bottom. Then we threaded two, 6″ wooden rod “axles” through the straws. The wooden rods were BBQ skewers cut down to the proper size with pruning shears (and don’t forget to cut off the pointy end of the skewer!). The final step was to slide 4 plastic wheels on the ends of the wooden rods (later, kids used hot glue or tape on the ends of the rods to keep the wheels from sliding off). Here’s what the completed underside of a truck looked like:

axles and wheelsI purchased the wheels from Kelvin Educational, an online science supply company. They are 1-3/8″ in diameter. The wheels can be a little difficult to locate on the website, so here are the product numbers: black wheels are 990168 (they cost $10 for 100 wheels); colored wheels are 990169 (they cost $11 for 100 wheels).

wheelsAlternatives to the plastic wheels are wooden wheels, wooden spools, round foam beads, or tagboard circles with holes punched in them. Basically, if it rolls and has a hole in the center, you can use it!

Once the boxes were fitted with axles and wheels, kids proceeded to the decorating area. There, they found three, 6′ tables loaded with art supplies. University students from Stella Art Club and the Men’s Soccer team volunteered at both the art tables and the science area. They were amazing!

art materialsI don’t have a full list of all the art supplies we provided, but some that were particularly appreciated were mini pinwheels, animal finger puppets, and metallic springs (all 3 were purchased from Oriental Trading Company). Also popular were sparkle stems, fabric flowers, foam beads, and craft ties. A call for recyclables to University library staff also yielded some interesting one-off items, like decorative buttons, plastic bead necklaces, and little figurines.

We had work tables set up all over the gallery. They were stocked with markers, scissors, colored masking tape, packing tape, and glue sticks. There were 4 staff-operated hot glue stations too. Here’s the central work area in action:

central work area The final touch to the program was Katie’s brainchild…a “Find the Goldbug” game. Katie made, and hid, 5 Goldbugs in the gallery. Each Goldbug had a word written on its base. Kids had to find all the Goldbugs, decipher the “secret sentence” (it was “Everyone wants a pickle car”) and repeat the sentence to me or Katie. The prize? A little checkered racing flag to adorn your vehicle! The flags were “race car flag picks,” ordered from Oriental Trading Company (we made sure to cut the pointy ends off).

hidden goldbugKatie and I wore mechanics coveralls at the event (thanks to the Lewis Center for the Arts’ costume shop!). I managed to carry cough drops, my iPhone, my digital camera, the battery box for my microphone, my office keys, and lip balm in my coveralls. It was like I was wearing the most useful purse in the world. Coveralls are way comfortable too. Katie didn’t want to take hers off. I think I’ll get her a pair next holiday season. With her name stitched on the pocket.

team coverallAnd now, how about some amazing vehicles? Some kids fashioned little trailers for their vehicles. Some added pull strings. You might notice a few cellophane flames left over from this project. Love it!

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Thanks once again to Princeton University’s Men’s Soccer team and Stella Art Club. Your volunteerism, enthusiasm, and creativity was very much appreciated!

Science Friday

the eggbotWhile I certainly do my fair share of fiction-focused programs, I consider non-fiction programs to be (dare I say it?) just as much fun. And for today’s adventure in non-fiction, we’re talking science!

We’ve offered some interesting science programs in the past. Take, for example, the Chemistry of Magic, in which we demonstrated the real science behind seemingly magical reactions. Or this Rube Goldberg engineering program. Or even this humble preschool story time that featured the life stages of a butterfly. This week, to get a healthy dose of vitamin “S,” I dropped in on my friends at scienceSeeds.

scienceSeeds team

Team scienceSeeds: John, Michal, and Lindsay

ScienceSeeds is a local science enrichment center for grades K-8 . It was founded in 2008 by Michal Melamede. While raising her children, she noticed a lack of hands-on, age-appropriate, science and engineering opportunities. So Michal decided to establish a business that would encourage curiosity, exploration, discovery, and scientific thinking.

Visiting scienceSeeds is always fun. Especially when they let me play with their toys! Here are a few of their current favorites. Perhaps one or two will inspire a little science at your next program?


lamp 2I have to start with this one because I’m such a hot glue devotee. This is an LED lamp with hot glue stick shades! It was designed by John to demonstrate circuits, fiber optics and light behavior. He used a hot glue gun to hollow out the bottom of 5 hot glue sticks, and then rigged up a series of little LED bulbs on a simple circuit. Everything was attached to a foam core base, and then the base was wrapped with decorative duct tape. I love it.


butterflyThis is another project designed by scienceSeeds staff to teach hydraulics. Using two water-filled syringes and tubing, the butterfly lifts its wings up and down. The syringes are from a medical supply company, the tubing is from a science catalog, the base is wood, the wings are made from foam board, and the butterfly’s body is a clothespin. A little duct tape here and there and you’re ready to go. They also have versions with an owl, a bat, and a dump truck!


star boxOne final project from scienceSeeds’ workshop! This one demonstrates how simple machines and mechanisms work. Turn the crank and the movement of the wooden gears and rods causes the star to spin. The base is made from foam board, the sticks are bamboo skewers, and the gears are little wooden circles purchased from Michael’s craft store. A little hot glue and duct tape seals the deal.  And just look at this sweet double gear version!

bee boxMark my words…I’m GOING to find a way to work a foam board automataun into a story time project. It shall be done. Oh yes, it shall.


the eggbotThis is a recent acquisition at the workshop. It’s the EggBot, an art robot that can draw on round surfaces like eggs, light bulbs, ping pong balls, ornaments, etc. It hooks up to your computer and, with some lovely freeware, will take a design or image and put it right on your object! scienceSeeds is using it to teach CNC and automated design. Here are a couple test subjects…

lightbulbsAlas, an EggBot kit like the one above retails for $219, so it’s well out of my budget. The company that sells it is called Evil Mad Science LLC. Hah hah hah! Minions not included.


vacuumThis is a modification of a cardboard kit the staff tested. They found that a 1 liter bottle and plastic propeller worked much better than a cardboard tube and propeller. The foam board base holds a simple circuit that connects to a motor. As the motor spins the propeller, it creates a wind tunnel in the bottle that sucks up pieces of confetti. It’s the perfect way to teach engineering and air flow. It’s wildly popular with the kids too.


3-doodlerIt might be a little hard to see this in the photo, but this device lets you do 3-dimentional drawings! That thin green line you see isn’t drooping down from the tip of the doodler. It’s rising up from the piece of paper and standing on its own! You insert little plastic sticks of various colors into one end of the “pen.” The plastic emerges in liquid form out the other end, but quickly hardens. With some practice, you can “draw” amazing 3D creations like these:

popcafe everestrobotscienceSeeds likes to use the 3-Doodler for their 3D modeling workshops, sometimes in conjunction with their 3D printer. A 3-Doodler pen retails for about $100, and additional plastic sticks are approximately $10 for 25. I noticed that the pen makes a loud whirring noise while being operated (a little louder than an electric toothbrush). The staff also mentioned that after extended periods of use, you can smell burning plastic. The smell bothers some kids. But those things aside, it’s a cool little drawing tool.

I’ll leave you with a photo of scienceSeeds’ classroom space. Look at the cheerful red cabinets! The under-the-counter adjustable storage! The cool green chairs! Now imagine it packed full of kids creating, discovering, building, and innovating. Fantastic.

room shot