Graduate Student Kaitlin Hill Helps Host Exhibitions at the National Math Festival in Washington D.C.

Kaitlin HillNorthwestern graduate student Kaitlin Hill recently helped create and host a set of three innovative interactive exhibitions introducing climate math to K–12th graders at the National Math Festival in Washington, D.C., as part of a team of 16 volunteers. The group of volunteers were members of the Mathematics and Climate Research Network, and the joint outreach effort was the culmination of several months of designing the activities and worksheets of each station. Each station was designed collaboratively in the group, but Hill's main contribution was as a designer for the energy balance station. The team was led by Professor of Mathematics Mary Lou Zeeman of Bowdoin College. A long-time advocate for climate math, Zeeman serves as a co-director of the Mathematics and Climate Research Network, a member of the executive council of the Computational Sustainability Network, and a co-leader of the Mathematics of Planet Earth Initiative. She uses mathematics within cross-disciplinary research communities to help understand sustainability, climate change, and protecting the health of the planet.

The festival was held on Earth Day, Saturday, April 22. It is America’s largest celebration of mathematics, offering more than 80 interactive exhibitions, performances, activities, films, “athletic math” games, and talks by noted mathematicians (including Zeeman). The talks explored the math behind tipping points, eyesight, jazz, drag racing, black holes, Google’s PageRank algorithm, and more. The festival was free and open to the public — and is estimated to have attracted some 20,000 young math students, their families, and other visitors.

The team exhibitions, entitled “Climate, Math, Ice Cores, and You: Hands-On Data from Planet Earth,” featured three activity stations illustrating key concepts in climate math and scientific methods:

  • Observations The ice core station allowed participants to see and handle ancient ice cores drilled from glaciers in Greenland and the Antarctic, calculate atmospheric CO2 concentrations from data on gases trapped in ice-core bubbles for dates up to 800,000 years in the past, and plot the results together with temperature data on an enormous wall chart — revealing that as CO2 rises or falls over time, so do temperatures.
  • Processes The greenhouse effect station used a set of pendulums (consisting of steel ball bearings hanging from strings of various lengths), model molecules, and worksheets to explore the resonance mechanism by which CO2 molecules trap thermal radiation re-emitted from the Earth’s surface (after heating by the sun) and to calculate approximately how much this “greenhouse” process heats the atmosphere. 
  • Models The energy balance station used two hollow 6” copper balls (one painted deep ocean blue, one painted white) lit by lamps and a laser temperature gun to illustrate how darker-colored astronomical bodies that absorb light — like the Earth as its polar icecaps melt — grow warmer than do lighter-colored bodies that reflect light. Participants then moved stacks of pennies around a printed “flow chart” to model how the energy of the sun is reflected, absorbed and/or re-emitted in various proportions and directions by the Earth’s atmosphere, clouds, and surfaces — until incoming and outgoing energy are in balance.

The project was generously supported by Bowdoin College, the Computational Sustainability Network, the Math Climate Research Network, the National Science Foundation, and Normandale Community College. Pictures of the event can be found here.

Students attending different exhibitions at the festival