Children Measure the Penn Museum’s Iconic Sphinx in Unique Interactive Math Lesson

On a recent morning, ninety-nine years after the Sphinx arrived at the Penn Museum, Dr. Benjamin Ashcom posed a question to a group of sixth and seventh graders: How much does the Sphinx weigh?

The students from West Philadelphia's K-8 Henry C. Lea School were determined to answer this question through an ingenious lesson designed by Dr. Ashcom, a Penn Museum docent in the Museum's Community Engagement Department and former professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, and Antioch University in Ohio. Also involved were Penn GSE professor Heidi Gross and the children's school math teachers, Pamela Redmond and Susan Riemann.

Drawing on his background as a professor of education, Dr. Ashcom conceived of the Museum not only as a place to tour, but as a base of interactive learning experiences to teach lessons in math, architecture, engineering, literature, reading, and writing, along with archeology and history. Measuring the Sphinx puts his idea into practice.

To3 with ben start, Dr. Ashcom reviewed with the children what they knew about measuring one-, two-, and three- dimensional objects. They held bags of sugar, cinder blocks, and a granite slab to get a sense of their weight. Next the group moved to the Egypt Gallery. After receiving information about the origin of the Sphinx from docent Gene Magee, the measuring began. The children were not allowed to touch the artifact, so they used a marked leveling stick and tape measures to get their results.

Back in a Museum classroom, Dr. Ashcom drew a sketch of the Sphinx inside an imaginary cube. He talked about the space taken up by the Sphinx, and the empty space around it. The children's job was to calculate the space of the cube and subtract the empty space to get the Sphinx's weight. To make the calculation possible, Dr. Ashcom gave them the number of pounds per cubic foot of porphyry, the purple-toned stone used to create the Sphinx. In the end, the children calculated the weight as 14.77 tons. They were happy with their work and proud to share their answer and newfound skills with their teachers.

4 measuring sphinxBecause interacting with the artifacts is very different from learning about them by listening or reading, Dr. Ashcom believes these kinds of lessons will enable children to remember both the artifacts and their experiential learning permanently. This furthers his main goal, which is for children and their families to love the Museum as a place of learning.

Dr. Ashcom is a retired businessman who has also been a Professor of Education. He was a member of the Board of Overseers at Penn's Graduate School of Education and a Charles E. Merrill fellow at the Wharton School. In 2009, he became a docent at the Penn Museum—where, as fate would have it, he had started as an archeology student more than 50 years before.

By Ilene Rosen.

Photos (top to bottom): Dr. Benjamin Ashcom encircled by middle school students from West Philadelphia's Henry C. Lea School before they set about to calculate the weight of the Mueum's granite sphinx; Students in the Museum classroom get a literal feel of how much certain objects weigh; Henry C. Lea School students put into practice the math computations and hands on skills needed to calculate the weight of the sphinx. Photos: Penn Museum.

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