Seattle Universal Math Museum

Adding actuaries to the equation Tracy Drinkwater, Angela Lean and Craig Reynolds

The long-term growth and relevance of the Society of Actuaries (SOA) and other actuarial organizations depend on their ability to attract and retain strong diverse candidates with a passion and aptitude for mathematics and related fields. In recognition of this need, the SOA’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Strategy commits the SOA to “promote the actuarial profession and provide early support to underrepresented students.”

Because these recruiting and retention challenges are not unique to the actuarial profession, a Seattle-based team that includes an actuary, tech professionals, educators and government leaders is working on an ambitious project to create a mathematics museum that will expose a new generation of children to the beauty and importance of mathematics. The team believes its efforts will help strengthen and diversify the actuarial profession, as well as other math-based professions.

But how do you inspire students to love math and want to learn more of it? Where can you take students on a math-focused field trip? How can you reveal to students the vigor and beauty of math and how it impacts all our lives? These are some of the questions one of our article authors, Tracy Drinkwater, founder and president of the Seattle Universal Math Museum (SUMM), asked when she was a middle school math teacher 10 years ago.

The Growth of an Idea

Drinkwater established SUMM as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in 2019 with two board members. Since then, the organization has grown to a 45+ volunteer organization with 10 board members, one of whom is Craig Reynolds, FSA, MAAA, another article author, consulting actuary and 2015–2016 president of the SOA. SUMM has raised more than $150,000 in its recent seed fundraising round and is actively pursuing partnerships with two local organizations regarding potential exhibit and programming space.

SUMM will be the second math museum in the United States. The first is the National Museum of Mathematics (MoMath) in New York City, founded in 2012. MoMath has welcomed more than 1 million people, led math tours throughout the United States, and developed a broad array of diverse and engaging programs for students, teachers and parents. Drinkwater first visited and was inspired by the museum in 2015. She talked to its founders and shared her dream of starting a second museum on the other side of the country, with a focus on inspiring visitors to engage with math through hands-on activities to stimulate curiosity and ignite new ideas.

The mission of SUMM is ambitious: to spark a love of math in each and every person. Visitors to the future museum will embark on a math journey with creative opportunities for math exploration and discovery. There is untapped potential in our society to truly appreciate the wonder and beauty of math and how it helps us understand the world. The world’s problems need more creative minds studying math to dream up ways to solve them. Inspired students will be more likely to explore a variety of math-driven professions, including the actuarial profession.

Creating a Dynamic Experience

Imagine experiencing math in a 3D and hands-on way that feels like play. Active and visual learning increases engagement, makes strong connections and creates positive emotional experiences. A museum dedicated to math will show how math is connected to everything—it’s universal—and is the integral foundation of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. It is part of nature, art, music and almost every aspect of the world around us. Math is everywhere and for everyone. Math isn’t just a part of STEM—it’s the foundation that is essential to just about every subject area.

SUMM’s exhibits and programming will emphasize the relationship math has with other subject areas. SUMM will draw people in across multiple disciplines: music, art, technology, history (of math) and science: MATHS.

SUMM will build a dynamic museum to house engaging math exhibits, hands-on experiences, programs and play areas to stimulate inquiry, ignite creativity and curiosity, and reveal the wonders of mathematics through exploration. The museum will be for all ages and math abilities, but the plan is to focus on math within the third-to-eighth-grade levels to address many of the challenges that students, parents and teachers all face in this crucial time for the development of skills, confidence and attitudes toward math. SUMM hopes to have an indelible impact on students’ educational opportunities and ambitions to be anything they dream to be.

By making math accessible for all, SUMM will create new opportunities for learners in their formative years, when the introduction of the universal applications of math can make a lifetime impact on their personal and professional lives, leading to an exponential impact on their communities and the world.

Developing Math Skills and Confidence

Too many learners are discouraged from math early in their educational pathway. Lack of confidence and achievement in algebra are too often gatekeepers to graduation, college admission and career options. But research shows that almost anyone can learn math.

SUMM has plans to highlight Hispanic/Latino, Black and African American achievement in mathematics, as well as a variety of cultural math techniques and creativity throughout the museum exhibits and programming. SUMM will illuminate the diversity of mathematical contributions from around the globe. When visitors learn that mathematical theories were discovered by various civilizations on multiple continents over centuries, the hope is that they will feel a connection to the creativity in math from multicultural and historical perspectives.

Reaching more students of color and turning them on to the power of math also grows the pipeline of students from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds into college programs and careers focused on math, like actuarial science.

Launching its first temporary exhibit in October 2021, SUMM presented the For the Love of Math! art show. Hosted by Suzanne Zahr Gallery and curated by Timea Tihanyi, this exhibit explored various art forms influenced by math ideas and mathematical processes of making. The curated collection showed how the vigor, beauty and pleasure of math infuses our lives, from traditional crafts to contemporary research and daily creativity. Invited artists and mathematicians started a dialogue with their work, proving yet again the vital connection that has always existed between art and math.

Next Steps

SUMM plans to establish the museum over the next three to five years in the Seattle area. An ideal location would be in a South Seattle neighborhood or South King County to expand museum outreach beyond the downtown core, increasing accessibility and reach. SUMM’s goal is to be a site with easy access to public transportation and parking. In the meantime, SUMM continues to partner with existing community-based organizations, including local museums, to establish pilot programming and exhibit spaces to demonstrate the fun and power that comes with creative math engagement.

For more information on SUMM, and to learn more about how you can volunteer or provide financial support to help SUMM come to fruition, visit the website. Please consider joining the many other actuaries who are enthusiastic early supporters of this important effort!

Tracy Drinkwater is the SUMM founder and president of the board.
Angela Lean is a SUMM board member who works in corporate responsibility for Microsoft.
Craig Reynolds, FSA, MAAA, is a SUMM board member, principal and consulting actuary for Milliman, and Mercer Island City councilmember. He was president of the SOA in 2015–2016.

Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries or the respective authors’ employers.

Copyright © 2022 by the Society of Actuaries, Chicago, Illinois.