BEAUTY & THE MATH

A Construction for the Heptagon (Neusis II) https://www.k-state.edu/english/nelp/purple/art.html

Math was the beast of my high school homework. It loomed large and dangerous. I feared it and, too often, I hid from it. So, imagine my surprise when an enthusiastic math teacher led me to understand what I had missed.

“What I love most about math is its beauty,” explained Lauren Rhodes, assistant professor at Pennsylvania College of Technology. “I think of mathematics as color and light and sound and form … Math is art and art is math and music is art and music is math. They are all related. The underpinnings are mathematical …”

Lauren Rhodes

While interviewing Lauren for the Working Class documentary series, I found myself wishing I had learned math from a teacher like her. If I seen math as more than numbers and symbols and if I’d been willing to explore the connections between math and things I was naturally curious about, I might have tamed the beast that I feared.

I’ve been surprised to realize how many creative artists and innovators actually love math. Not only are they not afraid of math, they love it!

Crockett Johnson, author of Harold and the Purple Crayon (a children’s book classic featured in Working Class: Dream & Do), pursued a later-in-life love affair with mathematics.

Original book cover, Wikipedia

According to Dr. Philip Nel, who created The Crockett Johnson Homepage, math first was a hobby for the artist and then it became the inspiration behind a significant body of work.

He explained: “During what might be called his third career, Johnson painted about 100 large, vivid canvases of geometric shapes, often using a computer to plan the shapes for his abstract, mathematical ideas.”

Crockett Johnson’s math inspired work helps to dispel the myth that math and art do not mix.

Created during the last 10 years of Johnson’s life (1965-1975), 80 of the mathematical works now are part of a National Museum of American History collection.

Crockett Johnson and his painting Squared Circle. https://www.k-state.edu/english/nelp/purple/photographs.html#johnson_and_art/krauss Photo credit: Jackie Curtis.

The Mathematical Association of American calls the collection a “mathematical treasure” created by an artist who had “no formal training in mathematics.” Examples of the work also are included in a Smithsonian “Where Art Meets Math” spotlight.

Crockett Johnson’s math inspired work helps to dispel the myth that math and art do not mix. It is a myth Lauren Rhodes routinely faces.

“I have heard parents, teachers, other students, people talking about themselves, saying, ‘Oh, that’s okay, you’re just not a math person. Some people just aren’t. You’ll probably never be able to do mathematics.’ I want to scream, ‘No! No!’ It may be harder in some ways to learn some pieces of mathematics for some people, but we need to find a way for math literacy.”

“It may be harder in some ways to learn some pieces of mathematics for some people, but we need to find a way for math literacy.”

Lauren believes passionate educators can inspire students through practical learning experiences that pave the way for greater math literacy.

“I think probably the best thing a teacher can do ever is love their subject,” she said. “I know as teachers we all lose that passion occasionally. You’ve got to get it back … You have to sell your subject. You have to love it. Then, I think secondly you have to bring the magic with you.

“You have to be able to show students, even if they don’t understand … show them what different colors look like in mathematics. Show them what different sounds look like with the waves. Show them geometric structures that are unusual and yet structurally sound … Even if mathematically they can’t do it yet, they have to know why … Why are we doing this? Where is this algebra that seems to go on forever, where is it going to take me?”

“Show them geometric structures that are unusual and yet structurally sound.”

Artistic welder Matthew Gordon was influenced by his mother’s (Lauren Rhodes) love of art and math.

Mathematics can take students to incredible places – and serve as a foundation for rewarding careers – if they are willing to put the work into their study of the subject.

The latest episode in our documentary film series, Working Class: Game On! Math Matters explores the challenges and rewards associated with the study of math. It emphasizes the connection between math and technology.

“I think technology has helped mathematics to blossom,” Lauren Rhodes said. “I think the unfortunate side effect of inundation with technology is that we do expect to learn immediately – that if we can’t ‘Google’ it, then it’s not worth knowing. To me that’s very frightening because I know how much work it takes to really learn something for yourself … It takes time and effort and energy … We need resilience and fortitude, not just immediate answers. We need to have a meeting of technology and humanity.”

“We need to have a meeting of technology and humanity.”

A Student Bodies welded art sculpture on the campus of Pennsylvania College of Technology.

The Working Class series attempts to arrange such a meeting, inviting the audience to see the connection between what we learn in school and how we live our lives and  choose our work.

This week, Working Class: Game On! Why Math Matters premieres on WVIA Public Media. Featuring Lauren Rhodes along with other educators and legendary video game pioneer Nolan Bushnell, the film explores a variety of careers — from gaming and simulation to electronics engineering — that are based on the beauty and practicality of math.

Math is not a beast. Students need support and inspiration from teachers and mentors willing to dispel dangerous myths about who can and who cannot excel in math. Each and every math student deserves to find a path that leads to math literacy.

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