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Icons of Progress

Popularizing Math and Science

IBM100 Popularizing Math and Science iconic mark

In the 1950s, IBM engaged the husband-and-wife design duo, Charles and Ray Eames—known largely for their innovations in the design of chairs—to create a series of educational films and exhibits. These pieces didn’t sell anything or mention IBM or its products. Instead, they sought to translate mathematical and scientific concepts into engaging learning experiences for general audiences.

Why would a corporation do that? The answer says a lot about this particular company’s idea of its purpose. When you just want to sell machines, you describe their features and functions. Maybe you also help people learn how to use them. But when your ambition isn’t just to build information technology, but an information age—that’s different.

From the company’s earliest days, Thomas Watson Sr. had lofty ambitions for its impact on the world. But it was his son who launched what became the shadow function of IBM: educating the world on the nature and potential of information, science and mathematics. This deeper, long-term educational mission was central to Watson Jr.’s notion that “good design is good business.” And central to that mission was the work of the Eameses.

Arguably, the signature example of their efforts for IBM was Mathematica, the first interactive exhibit to make math its subject. Planning a new science wing to debut in 1961, the California Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles asked IBM for a contribution. The company turned to the Eameses, who designed a display that, in the words of Charles Eames, would “let the fun [of math and science] out of the bag.”

The sprawling exhibit included interactive stations demonstrating concepts such as celestial mechanics, the Möbius strip and projective geometry. At the multiplication cube, 512 lightbulbs arranged in a cube flashed responses to multiplication problems typed into a keyboard by visitors. Elsewhere, wire structures emerged from soapy water. The bubbles that stretched between the wires showed a visual math form of minimal surfaces. Individual viewing stations beckoned guests to watch “peep shows,” where playful animated films offered two-minute lessons on symmetry, powers of numbers and other mathematical concepts.

Mathematica popularized the field of math and delighted viewers with its accessible, informal and hands-on approach—without talking down to its audiences or oversimplifying its complex subjects. It whetted the public appetite for math and science as a way to understand the world, and paved the way for the creation of the experiential exhibits that are common today and emphasized at museums such as San Francisco’s Exploratorium, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, North Carolina’s Discovery Place, and dozens more.

Mathematica made history: it remained open until 1998 as the longest-running corporate-sponsored museum exhibition to date before touring major US art museums. There is now a permanent Mathematica installation at Boston’s Museum of Science, and the original exhibition is on permanent display at the New York Hall of Science. Commenting on the installation of Mathematica there in 2004, New York Times critic-at-large Edward Rothstein wrote, “It still exudes confidence. It invites attention not by promising participatory sensation but by offering beauty and elegance. It spurs curiosity not by aiming for simplicity but by offering hints of complexity.”

That synthesis of elegance and complexity characterizes the influential body of work—more than 15 films and 30 exhibits—created by the Eameses for IBM. Elements of Mathematica were replicated on an international stage at the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, in a futuristic installation where visitors ascended into an egg-shaped theatre showing a multimedia Eames presentation that explained the potential of computing to help humankind. Additionally, as film made its way into the classroom as part of Sputnik-era educational reform, thousands of fascinated schoolchildren learned about the scale of the universe by watching the 1968 Eames film Powers of Ten.

In the half-century since Mathematica, IBM has continued to champion innovative approaches to teaching and learning math and science, as well as technology and engineering—referred to collectively as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). In today’s truly global age, IBM has also expanded the reach of its programs. Its web resource TryScience—a collaboration with the New York Hall of Science and member institutions of the Association of Science-Technology Centers—offers online activities, interactive exhibits and live camera “field trips” via websites in nine languages, opening a world of scientific discovery to kids, teachers and parents around the globe.

A companion site launched in 2011, Teachers TryScience, provides middle school teachers with free, standards-based STEM lessons integrated with instructional strategies. Grace Suh, senior program manager with Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs at IBM, says, “Teachers TryScience is designed to give teachers the comprehensive supports they need to implement a lesson effectively, with a focus on hands-on projects that showcase what it is like to work as an engineer.” The site offers teachers a range of resources, including pedagogical information—such as how to work with students in groups or how to teach students with different learning needs and styles—and practical how-to guides, like how to build a wind turbine or a solar car.

Students also are getting inspired by IBMers to study and pursue careers in STEM. As part of On Demand Community—an innovative corporate philanthropy initiative—each year, tens of thousands of IBM employees and retirees donate their time and skills to schools around the world, engaging in hands-on science activities and career days that showcase exciting opportunities in the IT field.

In 2010, IBM spent US$33.7 million on nearly a dozen K-12 education programs, with almost half of those funds supporting programs outside the United States. A series of IBM Technology Camps held each summer in countries throughout the world—including Australia, Canada, Denmark, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Japan—foster scientific and engineering learning among school-age youth, stoking math, science and engineering career aspirations. All-girl camps are among these, designed to help shore up the number of women working in technology careers worldwide.

In September 2011, IBM will help launch a new kind of school it hopes will serve as a global model for robust science and technology instruction. Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) is a public school in Brooklyn, New York, where grades 9-14 students will earn associate degrees in preparation for either continued study at a four-year institution or entry-level IT positions. They will also be able to explore various careers in technology through internship, coaching and mentoring opportunities provided by IBM. The school has already created a lot of buzz, and educators visiting from as far away as the Philippines are eager to replicate the model at home.

Grace Suh says, “In all our programs for young people, we’re focused on creating opportunities where few may exist. The STEM disciplines help prepare students to help solve some of the world’s most deeply entrenched problems. If we’re going to continue to lead over the next 100 years, we need to prepare the next generation of innovators.”


Selected team members who contributed to this Icon of Progress:

  • Thomas Watson Jr. CEO of IBM, 1956 - 1971
  • Charles and Ray Eames Consultant designers to IBM (1950s - 70s)
  • Eliot Noyes IBM’s first consultant design director (1956)
  • Stan Litow Vice President of Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs
  • Robin Willner Vice President of Global Community Initiatives
  • Grace Suh Senior Program Manager, Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs
  • Doris B. Gonzalez Senor Program Manager, Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs
  • Temeca Simpson Program Manager, Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs