Math as a Laboratory Science

Math is not only the last letter in STEM or STEAM, it is the only one that we do not picture as experimental. We don’t imagine students learning science without doing experiments. We don’t imagine them learning technology without writing code, or learning engineering without building models, or learning art without messing with paint, clay, or paper. Yet, we easily imagine learning math without experimenting. In fact, it is rare that students ever do a math experiment or think about math that does not have a “right” answer.

I learned to experiment from one of my great teachers, Walt Hunter. I even had the great good fortune to also being his chemistry lab assistant my senior year in high school. That I did not fall in love with chemistry was not his fault; I had just loved physics since I was 7 years old. But I did fall in love with experimentation, and like Walt I gained a deep belief that learning to experiment should be an essential aspect of every student’s education. I brought that belief to my physics classes replacing teacher demonstration with student experimentation. I took it to my Jr. High math classes, where I made my students worksheets that let them play with numbers and mathematical patterns. I carried it to my focus on manipulatives as a math coordinator, and I bring it to What if Math.

Using spreadsheets as basic learning tools for math has many advantages, but I think the most important one is that it turns math into a laboratory science. It enables students to experiment, to build and iterate models, to test those models, and to apply them to real-world data, complex rich data. It lets them ask and answer what if… questions. And it turns them into explorers who love to use math and who gain Walt’s experimental habits of mind, the thrill of discovery. It is this, I now know, that Lynn Steen saw when he described mathematics as the “Science of Patterns,” for math does belong to STEM/STEAM after all. So, when you plan your math classes, imagine your chemistry teacher, and the twice weekly labs where you learned to act like a scientist, to explore, to discover, to ask, “What if…”


*Portrait of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and his wife by Jacques-Louis David, ca. 1788, Wikipedia