Press Release





















Jan. 24, 2002
Media only:
Adrienne Durand (202) 357-3129
Melinda Machado (202) 357-3129

National Museum of American History Goes to Math Class

Exhibit Marking 200 Years of Teaching Math in America Opens Feb. 8 

When you were in school, did you learn to calculate using a 7-foot-long slide rule? Did you learn about the properties of numbers using brightly colored Cuisenaire rods? Ever wonder who invented the graph paper you used in geometry class?

An exhibition, titled "Slates, Slide Rules, and Software: Teaching Math in America," will take museum visitors back to the classroom with a display of tools used to teach math across American history, from the 1800s to the present. The Smithsonianís National Museum of American History exhibition will open on Feb. 8. An on-line exhibition can be viewed at from the same date.

In the United States, innovations in teaching mathematics have been spurred by a number of factors, including growing and shrinking school populations, new technological advances, and international relations. Some of these factors led to the creation of ingenious, often beautifully crafted, educational tools.

"Almost all Americans have vivid recollections of time spent in math class," said exhibition curator Peggy Kidwell. "This showcase places objects they may have encountered there within the broader framework of American history."

Visitors will be able to see a wide variety of teaching tools. A wooden blackboard from the 1800s was used in a New Hampshire school, established when several states founded the public schools to provide basic education for their citizens. Blackboards became popular after teachers with ties to England and France introduced the erasable surfaces.

A 1997 geoboard, a plastic pegboard on which rubber bands can be stretched in patterns, was used more recently in an elementary school. The board was invented by Egyptian-born educator Caleb Gattengo, who together with Belgian school teacher Emile-Georges Cuisenaire argued that students should learn basic concepts about math with tangible objects.

Graph paper, a math class staple, was developed between 1890 and 1910, when the number of high school students in the U.S. quadrupled, and math professors took an active interest in improving high school education.

A late 1950s "On-Sets" game was used to teach "set theory" and other ideas associated with the New Math taught to high schoolers during the Cold War, in the hope of increasing national security.

Casio, a Japanese firm, introduced handheld electronic "graphing" calculators to U.S. schools in 1986. The University of Hawaii developed computer programs, such as muMath in 1979 and later DERIVE in 1988, that could perform such functions as calculating algebraic equations. Computerized devices became commonplace in math teaching as they became accessible to public consumption, and 20th-century math courses were reshaped to take advantage of such tools.

The National Museum of American History, Behring Center traces American heritage through exhibitions of social, cultural, scientific and technological history. Collections are displayed in exhibitions that interpret the American experience from Colonial times to the present. The museum is located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. For more information, visit the museumís Web site at or call (202) 633-1000, 357-1729 (TTY), or 633-9126 (Spanish).


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