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Math and Science Across Cultures, from the Exploratorium

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Review Synopsis: by science content expert Nicola De Torre

This book is full of exciting information and activities. It is well designed and easy to navigate. Each activity includes background information, materials lists, estimated time frames, procedures, and discussion suggestions. The background information is thorough and informative for teachers who are less comfortable with the concepts. The activities are truly inquiry based and experiential. They present problems to the students and encourage trial-and-error problem solving. This book does more than offer accessible, exciting math and science activities. It links the ideas to cultural studies and incorporates appropriate literature when applicable. It is a well-rounded book designed to help students draw connections and make new discoveries.
Full Review:
The Exploratorium is a museum in San Francisco that was designed by physicist Frank Oppenheimer with the belief that students learn best when they explore concepts on their own. Today's popular constructivist theory is based on the same premise. Math and Science Across Cultures is a conglomeration of activities and investigations that effectively provide a solid base of information and simultaneously inspire exploration and discovery.

Math and Science Across Cultures is well organized and easy to follow. The book has introductory sections that explain how to use the book and what teaching styles work best with the activities. Each activity is neatly organized and contains a summary of materials, appropriate ages level, main points, and approximate time needed. All of the activities are appropriate for ages 12 and older, with some designed for 10 and older. Similar to many lesson-plan formats, the activities begin with motivational questions or information that sparks students' attention, followed with a more in-depth description of the culture and the mathematical or scientific concepts explored in the activity. There are useful symbols included at points when a teacher may need to practice caution with materials or spin the lesson off into a discussion. The only place where I advise additional caution is with the use of mercury-filled thermometers in extremely hot water, since many thermometers are not able to withstand the high temperatures.

The discussion suggestions all involve higher-order thinking skills and are directly linked to the activities. In activity 11, for example, students use a Botswanan method of collecting water and create model stills similar to what they would find in the Kalahari Desert. One question is "Can you think of ways to speed up evaporation and condensation so you can collect water in your still more quickly?"

One of the missions of the museum is to make science and math more relevant and approachable to people of all backgrounds. The creators of these activities did this by studying mathematical and scientific concepts from different cultures around the world. However, because it is so well written, this book can reach another, often neglected, reluctant population—teachers who are not as comfortable with math or science as they are with subjects in the humanities. Advanced scientific concepts are presented accurately, effectively and in a friendly manner. Additional charts, graphics and information are included to extend the thinking of those who are already familiar with the concepts.

While the background information is informative, it also inspires inquiry. Each activity supports "playful" experimentation. Too often in science materials, inquiry is misconstrued and activities are based on isolated questions that connect to a topic of study but are not derived from authentic student interests. All of these activities include experimentation and encourage students to make their own connections in hopes that the students will find new ways of looking at things. The discussion questions involve higher-order thinking skills and encourage students to explore. Most importantly, "correct" answers are not involved, since everything is experimental and discovery-based. Questions inspire deeper probing, and that brings about answers—but also more questions.

In the back of the book there is a chart that links each activity to the national science and math standards for fourth through twelfth grades. Interestingly, not every activity incorporates science standards. However, that does not mean that important scientific reasoning was not incorporated. For example, the third activity, "Counting like an Egyptian: Math in Ancient Egypt," does not fulfill any science standards, but it is laden with planning and testing, key concepts for scientific research. The work of numerous archeologists and anthropologists is also mentioned, but not linked to the standards. However, true scientific thinking involves finding answers to questions about the world around us—including culture.

Many programs are looking for interdisciplinary activities. As the time in the classroom feels shorter and shorter, they hope that even the experiences outside of the classroom will overlap subject areas to meet the increasing demands on students. This book does more than offer accessible, exciting math and science activities. It links the science and math to cultural studies and incorporates appropriate literature when applicable. It is a well-rounded book designed to help students draw connections and make new discoveries.