The pyramid and the soap bubble

What do a pyramid and a soap bubble have in common? Answer: mathematics. Making them a tourist attraction through a novel pedagogical approach is the gamble which Giessen took and won with “Mathematikum”. It has provided interactive games for young and old…and a carry-over effect for the surrounding region.

Additional tools

Print  
Taking another look at “maths”. Taking another look at “maths”.

Context

Hessia already had its Book Fair in Frankfurt and its Documenta international exhibition of contemporary art in Kassel. Now add to that the Mathematikum in Giessen. The latter has become a major tourist attraction in this university town of 73000 inhabitants and a contributing factor to the dynamism of a region which is still dealing with structural handicaps and high unemployment rates (8.5% in the Land and 13% for young people in 2005).

A PISA (1) investigation wasn’t required to confirm the fact that maths are often disliked. Overall adult proficiency levels and the general attitude toward the topic clearly demonstrate that schools have not done enough to fulfil their mission in this area. Little effort was made in Germany to build scientific pedagogy centres like those which have proven their worth in the UK and the United States since the 1960s.

Making math contagious

That is, until the mid-90s, when Professor Beutelspacher – a man so passionate about mathematics and teaching that he used puppets to give classes in market squares and on buses – decided to design interactive experimental mathematical games with his students. The goal was to make maths understandable to everyone while covering both practice and theory. A local exhibition in 1994 soon became a travelling exhibit then a permanent centre, a mathematics museum with a three-fold objective: to show primary and secondary school students another side of mathematics which was both positive and motivating, to open hidden doors for adults to (re)discover the world of numbers, and to provide Giessen and its region with a national, and potentially international, opportunity with an innovative tourist product.

A decision was made in 2000/2001. Financial backing was provided by the Land of Hessia and the EFRD and contributions were received from many regional private donors and sponsors. The City of Giessen provided the premises (rent-free for 30 years) with the complete renovation of a group of two-hundred year old buildings next to the train station which had previously been used as customs offices. Started in February 2002, construction work progressed quickly. A section of the Mathematikum was already open by the end of the year. The buildings were finished, equipped with a first set of equipment, and inaugurated in November 2003.

Results

The Mathematikum was successful from the very beginning and this success has continued to grow, reaching a level never anticipated. Its 1200 m² of exhibition space housing 120 interactive games, its auditorium and its science store welcome 150000 visitors a year. Weekday visitors are mainly school children of all ages. The general public comes at other times, especially on weekends and holidays, and make up more than 50% of the total number of visitors. They come from farther and farther away and, during summer vacations, come from some fifty different countries.

This success is matched with a very high level of visitor satisfaction and has had a positive economic impact: for many, the site is the main reason for visiting Giessen and a starting point to discover the city and the surrounding region. The Mathematikum currently employs 80 people, including many students, for the equivalent of more than 20 full-time positions. It is among the very few cultural institutions which is financially solid. In terms of image, it plays a key role in a process which now seems irreversible: the development of Giessen as a City of Sciences (Wissenschaftsstadt).

(1) PISA: Programme for International Student Assessment, implemented by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Draft date

01/08/2007