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Playful new NY math museum not for squares

The message at New York's new Museum of Mathematics is simple: math is everywhere. Even the bathroom, where pentagonal sinks go down to a triangular base, is called a mathroom.

CBS News Staff
Mo Rocca rides a square-wheeled bicycle in the Museum of Mathematics in New York City. CBS News

Math. The very word can conjure painful memories: long division, square roots, the quadratic equation.

Not only do many of us not like math; we're also not very good at it. In an international test of 15-year-olds, the U.S. placed 24th out of 64 countries.

"We don't currently, in this country, have a cultural expectation that yeah, you're going to learn math just like you're going to learn reading," said Glen Whitney. "It's OK to not be good at math."

Glen Whitney is good at math. He's got a Ph.D. in it, and is trying to change the way we think about one of our least favorite subjects.

Whitney says our math curriculum is designed for rocket scientists... literally. Fifty years ago, America was in a space race against the Soviet Union, and beefing up our math program was seen as a winning solution.

Whitney said America was on a mission then: "We had to, you know, beat the Soviets to the moon. So we needed, you know, the young, bright science or math kid to be our hero to take us to the moon. And we haven't had a mission like that since then to capture the public imagination as to the importance of math."

That's where Whitney and his latest project come in -- a museum devoted entirely to math.

"With our opening, there's now one math museum in North America," he says.

The Museum of Mathematics (MoMath for short) opened in December in New York City. With $23 million behind it, it feels less like a classroom and more like a playground.

Museum co-founder Cindy Lawrence showed CBS correspondent Mo Rocca around. There was a square-wheeled tricycle that somehow rides like a dream. "It's smoother than a Lexus," Rocca laughed.

Magic? Nope, it's math.

Watch the video below to see more of Rocca's visit to MoMath.

This story originally appeared on CBS "Sunday Morning."