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Magic in the mall

Janet Porter visits a Birmingham shopping centre and discovers the wonders of numbers.

Maths, like science, is all around us," said Selwyn van Zeller, who organised this year's Maths Fest 2000 in the Perry Barr shopping centre, Birmingham in July. "In completely unexpected ways, we'll be exploring three-dimensional space and shape, experiencing challenging mathematical concepts in the process. We hope people will feel compelled to break off from their shopping because they'll be intrigued by what we offer on our stalls."

Modular origami? Ludo with crocheted counters? It was a chance to sample maths in action for families out on a summer weekend.

Darcy Turner, one of the experts running the stalls, re-conditions newspaper into batons that can be used to build strong structures. "I'm out to de-fuzz notions of triangulation so that kids will speedily grasp that the simple triangle is crucial to durable structure," he says. "I looked hard at the ordinary paper lolly-stick and saw that I needed a limitless supply of bigger versions. If we could find a means of making them in some kind of ultra-durable format, then would-be young craftspeople could experiment with construction techniques, learning as they went along from their own mistakes."

As he spoke, a spontaneous workforce abandoned their shopping, downed carrier-bags and got to work with raw material: old papers, a manual roller and a dab of glue. Soon an impressive newspaper bridge spanned the shopping area.

Paul Stephenson's Magic Mathworks table race was a bright, breezy introduction to Z P Dienes's multiple embodiment principle. "Mathmatical investigation at best follows on logically from the 'what will happen if' curiosity of the barely verbal infant," explained Stephenson. "If only parents would draw attention to the challenge of shape when telling their children to clear away at the end of the day. You can start to think strategically and mathematically long before school, of necessity, feels obliged to formalise all that fun."

Further into the mall, Pat Ashforth and Steve Plummer's designer knitwear was luring fashion-conscious girls into investigating Pythagoras' theorem in four-ply. Plummer and Ashforth's pattern book features the Best of Both Whirls (further elaborated as 24 identical squares creating Baravelle spirals) and Tower Blocks (otherwise described as the cubes from Cubism divided into smaller cubes, using four main shades and three shades of grey). "Vibrant, interactive and fun," enthused Mindy and Jhitti Jhittay, Year 8 and 10 pupils at King Edward VI Handsworth School, Birmingham.

For more information contact Selwyn van Zeller, Light on Science, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Chamberlain Square, Birmingham B3 3DH

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