A Day in Digitopolis, Part I

day in digitopolis part 1We’ve all wanted to jump into books. Who doesn’t, for example, want to go to Diagon Alley and hit the shops? Join Hazel for stories in the Honeycomb? Explore Babilonium with Candy Quackenbush? Or sail the skies with Matt Cruise on the Aurora? Part of my job at the Cotsen Children’s Library is to bring these places to life for kids, and this month, we headed to The Lands Beyond to visit Digitopolis, the mathematical kingdom in The Phantom Tollbooth.

The math event was intended for children ages 4-10, and my goal was to make it full of exploration, demonstrations, games, challenges, and unexpected connections. And by the four million eight hundred and twenty-seven thousand six hundred fifty-nine hairs on my head, I think we did it!

A Day in Digitopolis took place in the atrium of Princeton University’s Frick Chemistry Laboratory, a soaring, three-story structure of glass and metalwork. Here’s our welcome desk with two student volunteers and Pi balloons.

digitopolis welcome deskBut before I get started on all the details, I’d like to introduce our event collaborator, Bedtime Math. Founded by Laura Overdeck, Bedtime Math is a NJ-based nonprofit organization that provides playful, zany math problems for parents to do with their kids everyday. In addition to sharing their content through their books, e-mail, and free app, they created Crazy 8s, an after-school math club that has been launched in over 6,000 locations nationwide. These guys know, and love, math.

bedtime math booksBedtime Math brought 3 fantastic activities to the event: Spy Training, Beach Ball Party, and Glow-in-the-Dark Geometry. Here’s Spy Training, which was all about codes and ciphers…

spy trainingAnd here’s Beach Ball Party, which involved counting, stacking, and chasing beach balls determined to make a break for it.

beach ball partyIt also involved Ellen Williams (who you last spotted being pelted with marshmallows in this post) inflating dozens and dozens of beach balls for kids at the event. That’s her in the lower right corner of the photo, hard at work. Very impressive lungs has our Ellen (did I mention she sings in multiple choirs?).

But the total show stopper was Bedtime Math’s Glow-in-the-Dark Geometry. This took place in a darkened classroom off the main event floor. Here, kids could build illuminated structures with glow stick bracelets and styrofoam balls. The results were totally amazing.

glowing geometrySome kids decided to use the original plastic connectors that came with the bracelets to make unique geometric creations. Here’s one of my favorites. A series of loops that, when spun, becomes a sphere!


Bedtime Math was recently invited to the White House to take part in an early STEM learning summit. Seriously. When it comes to amazing math connections for kids, Bedtime Math has it down!

Moving to a different section of the event floor, we find the fabled number mines of Digitopolis. In the book, Milo, Tock, and the Humbug learn that numbers are, in fact, excavated out of the earth, much like jewels and precious stones. The talented Maria Evans from the Arts Council of Princeton built the mine you see below, but we built another one for a later event. You can find the step-by-step instructions here.

number mines 1The mines were stocked with an assortment of wooden numbers. I used 4″ numbers I found online at Woodcrafter. If you’d like a cheaper option, I recommend printing paper numbers on card stock.

At the event table, kids reached into the mine, extracted a number, and then decorated it with a combination of metallic markers and glitter markers. We also had plastic gems and glue on hand for some additional bling.

number mines 4number mines 5

number mines 2The mines were staffed by high school volunteers from the Arts Council, who were suitably decked out in miner helmets.

number mines 3Elsewhere in Digitopolis was the “Fibonacci Forest,” hosted by the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association. This table focused on math in nature. Specifically, symmetry, shapes (like spheres, hexagons, spirals), fractals, and Fibonacci numbers. The Watershed brought a ton of items for kids to touch, connect with, and explore (including my personal favorite, a gorgeous nautilus shell).

nature math 1nature math 2The Watershed also did a cool fractal tree project. It involved a half-sheet of green paper, brown markers, and rulers (here are the instructions if you’d like to see them).

nature math 3We decorated the finished fractal trees with bird and leaf stamps, but you can also just use markers or color pencils.

nature math 4And speaking of wildlife, how about some zebra math? We were delighted to be joined by Princeton University Professor Dan Rubenstein from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Among other things, Dan does field work with African zebras.

zebra math 1Some researchers believe that zebra stripes exist to confuse predators. So Dan and his constituents developed “Dazzle Confusion,” an iPad game in which kids “become the lion” and tried to tap black, white, or striped moving targets to determine which one is most difficult to hit.

zebra math 2At the end of the game, the program tabulated the kids’ results and displayed them on a large screen. As the event progressed, the results continued to accrue. This lead to conversations about data collection, measurement, central tendencies, and averages.

zebra math 3It’s worth noting that although there was much variation on kids’ “strikes” on the targets, there was a strong trend (p < .08) showing that the striped targets were hardest to hit! How’s that for some real world math?

Continuing with the technology theme, the Princeton Women in Computer Science designed an original math game for kids using Scratch, a visual programming language developed by MIT.

scratchHere’s a screen shot of the game, which was created by sophmore Lucy Lin. If you’d like to test drive the game yourself, here’s the link.

scratch screen shotThe game was cool, but even cooler was the fact that there was another laptop running tandem to the gaming laptops that showed all the algorithms behind the Scratch program. And volunteers were on hand to answer any and all questions about computing. They also had a couple of encryption puzzles for kids to crack.

Meanwhile, the Princeton Chemistry Outreach Program (we’ve exploded things with these guys before) was busy making awesome math / science connections with kids. Dr. Wagner and her students ran hands-on experiments with parts per million, vitamin c clocks, and timed invisible ink.

chemistry outreach 1chemistry outreach 2chemistry outreach 3For those who prefer their math undiluted, the Princeton University Mathematics Club came out en force to host a “Playful Problems” table. Here, kids found a plethora of logic puzzles, word problems, visual puzzles, calculator tricks, the works!

math club 1math club 2There were 12 different activities for children ages 4-10. The activities ranged from easy to moderately difficult. Here’s an example of our simplest puzzle, which was created by Casandra Monroe (whom you first met here). Here’s the template if you’d like it.

milo number grid puzzleBelow is a list of what we offered at the event table (if you’d like more details on any of them, just e-mail me!). In addition to using Google to find some of these puzzles, Math Wizardry for Kids (Barron’s, 1995) and How to be a Math Genius (DK Children, 2012) were terrific resources.

  • Suduko
  • Lattice multiplication
  • Logic grid puzzle
  • Matchstick puzzles (we used Q-tips instead of matchsticks)
  • Milo number grid maze (see above)
  • 24 Game
  • Multiplying by 9 finger trick
  • Make a paper star with only 1 cut
  • Superimposed shapes puzzle
  • Visual sequencing puzzle
  • Word problems
  • Birthday calculator trick

Important! If you put together your own Playful Problems table, make sure you provide an answer sheet for each problem. That way, parents and kids can check their answers or get a little hint. Also important! No matter how easy the puzzle, provide an answer sheet (you don’t want younger kids to think that their puzzle was too “easy” for a solution sheet).

For those wanting a bit a exercise with their mathematics, we had a giant 16′ x 16′ floor maze (building instruction for it are in this post). Kids had to get from start to finish in the maze – without making a single right-hand turn. If you got stuck, the solution was posted on some glass doors opposite the entry to the maze.

no right turn maze at eventBy the way, did you notice the cute play cart parked in the upper right corner of the above image? That’s one of our “Trio of Treats.”

trio of treatsI always try to include something for the littlest patrons, so I bought 3 adorable food carts and stocked them with math play sets. The food carts are by KidKraft (Sweet & Sunny Lemonade Stand) and the play sets are by Learning Resources. We used  Piece-A-Pizza Fractions, Number Pops, and Count ‘Em Up Popcorn.

And, because little kids love to take things in and out of containers, I bought a fabric basket for the pizza cart, a plastic box with a hinged lid for the ice pop cart, and a clear container for the popcorn cart. After the event, we donated the carts and math sets to a local non-profit preschool.

trio of treats customerOne of the most popular event tables, however, was “Visit the 4th Dimension.” It was hosted by scienceSeeds (whom you first met here, and then again here).

scienceseeds 1At the event table, kids learned about the different dimensions (1st is a line, 2nd is a square, 3rd is a cube, 4th is a tesseract). ScienceSeeds brought their 3D printers to the event and made models. You can see a tesseract in progress below. Awesome.

scienceseeds 2Kids could also make 3D models of their own using drinking straws and plastic connectors. You can buy the plastic connectors online (from Strawbees). However, scienceSeeds has a die cut machine and was able to purchase the die cuts (from Accucut) and make their own connectors from plastic sheets (from Grafix).

scienceseeds 4Like I said, their table was hopping – they estimate they went through at least 3,500 straws!

scienceseeds 3The thing I liked most about the project is that there was no limit to the shape, size, or intended use of the 3D models.

3D model 13D model 23D model 53D model 33D model 4

If plastic connectors are not in your budget, I’ve seen similar activities that used straws and pipe cleaner pieces (like this one), or sculptures that that involved cutting and sliding the ends of bendy straws into one another (like this one). I’ve also seen toothpick and marshmallow, (or toothpick and gum drop) geometric structures. But I tend to avoid those because of food allergies.

Whew! Believe it or not, I’m only halfway through all the event activities! You can check out Part II here…prepare to meet Digitopolis’ famous celebrities, get a bit of hands-on history, listen to some musical fractions, and view some truly stunning representations of infinity…

Writing, Re-imagined

writing reimaginedLook closely and you’ll see that these are not handwritten pages of notes. They’re hand-stitched pages of fabric. The intricacy of the stitching, the re-imagining of lined paper as cloth, and the time it takes to produce a single page make viewing these pieces truly amazing. Also amazing is the touching and mindfully deliberate recording of life – both the extraordinary and the ordinary – through slow and careful stitchery.

page 1These pages are the works of Diana Weymar, currently the Artist-in-Residence at the Arts Council of Princeton. Diana’s also the curator of Every Fiber of My Being, a group show that explores the use of textiles as a second skin. As part of her residency, Diana has initiated Interwoven Stories, a community stitching project that invites individuals to record their own thoughts, feelings, experiences, and beliefs on fabric pages. Later, the pages will be displayed on five installations around town.

Diana WeymarPlease tell us a little about yourself!

I am 46 years-old, have four children ages 12-22, and live in the U.S. and Canada. I graduated from Princeton in 1991 after writing a creative thesis with Joyce Carol Oates. I have worked in publishing and film in NYC and the past five years have been focused on my art practice – the basis of which is using familiar materials in unfamiliar ways – and on community-based art projects.

When did you first re-imagine lined notebook paper as fabric?

When both of my maternal grandparents passed away, boxes of their belongings were sent to me. For some reason, I found their crisp white sheets – they belonged to the generation that saturated their sheets with starch – heartbreaking. At the same time, I was reviewing notes from my writing course at Princeton with John McPhee and found that his rules for writing also applied to my art practice. The continuity between the craft of writing and crafting sculptural pieces was surprising and enriching.

My notes and writing pieces from class with John were, in a way, very much like traditional samplers. Instructive. Practice-based learning. I wanted to spend more time with my notes from class and thought of rewriting them in thread. The term “thread consciousness” is often thrown around when discussing contemporary embroidery but it’s a very basic idea: the process of creation is a process of awareness and the longer you spend on a piece – written or stitched – the more aware you become. Communication is so quick now. Quickly created and quickly consumed.

page 2Can you describe the process behind creating a single sheet?

I cut 8 ½ x 11 pages out of bed sheets and then create the blue and pink lines by machine. For Interwoven Stories I created 200 fabric pages. They each take about 25 minutes from start to finish. I started to develop pain in my right hip from shifting my weight to the left to press on the pedal with my right foot. Sometimes I can still feel the vibrations of the machine coursing through my right side. Without music and podcasts to distract myself, I don’t think I would have been able to finish machine sewing the pages. Spending a concentrated amount of time with the sewing machine gave me a deep appreciation for labor-based practices. The final touch was to punch holes in the fabric sheets.

blank fabric pageIs it difficult to achieve flow when hand-stitching? I imagine it’s quite a bit slower than writing, painting, or sculpting…

It’s “slow flow” but has exactly the same language and process as painting, drawing, and sculpting. I love the mechanics of stitching, the metaphorical aspects of hand, thread, and fabric. This particular practice has the distinct advantage of being very portable. If I can sit and there is light, I can stitch. With four children and a bi-coastal lifestyle, I’ve worked on planes, while watching squash matches, and at lectures. It’s very hard to put down a piece once I’ve started it.

How do you utilize the different types of stitches in your work?

I’m asked this question frequently because the basic misconception about stitching is that it is exclusively a craft-based language and that to speak it, you must know a series of “trade stitches.” I use thread the same way I use ink or paint. Every stitch is either a line or a dot. There are some fabulous and inventive names for stitches and, at this point, I enjoy the names of technical stitches more than I enjoy them in my practice. The French Knot is essential to many of my pieces but, for now, I am focused on layering, color, and pattern while using a simple stitch.

close upIn your mind, what is the relationship between the written word and the stitched word? Are they the same? Vastly different?

When I think of the “written word” I think of the handwritten word. For me, the stitched word and the handwritten word are intimately related. The typed word is vastly different. It’s about looking and watching but not about creating a shape. Both the written and stitched word reveal so much about the author. All typed words look the same; all stitched and written words are different.

I realized recently that I have close friends whose handwriting I have never seen. My 12 year-old has not learned to write in cursive. I find all of this a little strange and disorienting. Would you rather hold a handwritten letter in your hand or read a letter on a screen? And if it’s been stitched, isn’t that almost like holding hands with someone? The next best thing? I find stitching to be very intimate. And caring. I have a friend who knit a blanket for me for Valentines Day. This still amazes me.

Though I am not making work for specific people, I am stitching as a way of sharing. What impresses me is that most people want to touch stitched words and images, to read them with their fingers. We touch screens but only to move content around. Not to read with our fingers.

page 3Please tell us about your community art project involving fabric paper.

Interwoven Stories is a version of a project that I did in Nicosia, Cyprus, Spring 2015, with Build Peace. I watched the lectures from the 2014 conference at the MIT Media Lab on video and I wanted to create a project using an “ancient technology” in a contemporary setting. Build Peace focuses on the use of cutting-edge technologies in peace building and the exploration of art as connection.

Interwoven Stories is also a community-based project in which 200 fabric pages have been handed out in Princeton to be stitched by residents of the community. I was recently at a dinner party in Princeton with someone who explained to me that UNESCO uses “cultural mapping” to promote intercultural dialogue and this resonated very strongly with me. Princeton is a very diverse community and I’m very much looking forward to collecting and curating the pages. I cannot wait to “read” them.

maria evans page

Interwoven Stories submission by Maria Evans


Images courtesy of the artist and the Arts Council of Princeton.

Bone Up On Your Storytelling

dia de los muertosA few years ago, the Arts Council of Princeton asked my library to submit a piece for their Dia de los Muertos exhibit. The result was the crazy kaleidoscope you see before you.

The base of was made of two recycled archive boxes (with 20 small boxes hot glued to the sides). We used construction paper, shiny cardboard mosaic tiles, patterned paper, foil leaves, miniature plastic gems, and tissue paper. By “we” I mean myself, 4 University students, and 1 Rare Books staffer. It was a “drop in anytime and decorate” sort of project, and over the weeks the layers just kept building.

My favorite part, however, is the skeletons. Princeton University student April Lee drew 20 little skeletons for the base pieces (and I hot glued 20 little books in their hands). But she also crafted the 3D skeleton figurines you see on the top – an adult skeleton reading to skeleton kids. They’re made with card stock and wire. The book being read to the eager youngsters? A fully skeletonized version of The Cat in the Hat of course. Isn’t April amazing? You can see another one of her projects – a fantastic Mythomagic deck – right here.

There were several other pieces in the exhibit as well. But here’s the one that completely won my arty, crafty, re-purposing heart:

Skull by Maria EvansIt’s a giant skull made of chicken wire and coffee filters. Coffee filters! Over 2,000 of them! The artist is Maria Evans (who also happens to be the Artistic Director of the Arts Council). Beautiful.

If you’re looking for an interesting and artistic skeleton with a little Dia de los Muertos flair, take a look at this fellow! Also of possible interest – these super simple kid-safe lanterns.