Beaubien Elementary's 8th Grade Math Club Visits Argonne

May 31, 2012

A math club is a great way to inspire children and make math come alive, but connecting a passion for math to an exciting career can be a challenge. So Chicago Public School teacher Jason Major got a field trip idea for his eighth-grade math club.

On May 18, the math club of Jean Baptiste Beaubien Elementary School in northwest Chicago visited Argonne National Laboratory, the Lemont-based U.S. Department of Energy lab, and met with scientists who explained how important math is in solving some of the world's greatest challenges. The eighth graders also explored Argonne’s visualization lab, a cavernous room filled with high-tech tiled and 3D display systems that provide scientists with interactive and interesting ways to better mathematically represent, visualize, and understand data.

Field trip organizers Eleanor Taylor and Jennifer Salazar at Argonne designed the program to present surprising ways researchers use their math skills in their work. First, computer scientist Venkat Vishwanath described how supercomputers help scientists to solve ever-larger problems—the faster the computer, the faster the solutions—however, math skills are essential to designing and developing computer programs, called algorithms, that tell the machine how to efficiently and effectively work on the problems.

Next, microbial ecologist Jack Gilbert discussed the importance of microbes to human health and demonstrated why math-based models and predictions are critical to his research. Jack uses DNA sequencing technology to explore and describe the huge diversity of bacteria in the world. His work examines microbial functions and diversity in order to make predictions that have the potential to improve environmental and economic problems.

Finally, research meteorologist Doug Sisterson explained how mathematical calculations are used to determine the destructive forces of a tornado—calculations that help to determine where and when tornado warnings are issued, and for a researcher like Doug, when to monitor equipment and capture storm data. Doug works for the DOE’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Climate Research Facility, which provides the world’s most comprehensive observational capabilities for obtaining atmospheric data specifically for climate change research. Doug has also chased tornadoes with members of the National Severe Storms Laboratory tornado chase program.

How do mathematically gifted children use their skills when they grow up? The Beaubien math club left Argonne with many answers, plenty of inspiration, and, says Mr. Major, having had the best field trip ever.