Full Steam Ahead

If you’re  a teacher or you have a school-aged child, or maybe you’re just interested in education issues, you might have heard the acronym STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

Emphasis on STEM careers and STEM education has garnered federal attention and support, and some educational reformers use the term as a rallying call for change within the American school system.  They say a knowledge-based economy such as ours needs a workforce skilled in these disciplines to prosper — employees with the curiosity, the analytical skills, the working knowledge of computers and other technologies that STEM coursework fosters. You can’t argue with that.

Yet recently I heard someone suggest a one-letter revision to the STEM acronym. By changing STEM to STEAM, we acknowledge the critical role arts learning plays in educating children to their fullest capacity.  In a creative economy — one grounded in innovation and problem-solving — the arts are integral to developing critical thinking skills and to sparking the human imagination.

Listening to Here on Earth on Wisconsin Public Radio last week, I heard a fantastic example of STEAM learning. Margaret Wertheim of the Institute for Figuring, the program’s guest, explains how hyperbolic geometry was discovered by 19th century mathematicians, but at that time “no one knew how to make models of it and had come to believe that you couldn’t make physical models of it” — not until Cornell University mathematics researcher Daina Taimina used her skills with the crochet needle to create one of the first models of hyperbolic space.

Professor Taimina, who learned needlework in her childhood in Latvia, began crocheting the models in 1997, and she’s been at it ever since. [Read more about Daina Tamina in “Knit Theory” from Discover Magazine.]

Crochet hyperbolic kelp. Photo: Institute for Figuring.

Crochet hyperbolic kelp. Photo: Institute for Figuring.

Building on Professor Taimina’s discovery, Margaret Wertheim and her twin sister Christine noticed that, in coral reefs, nature makes its own models of hyperbolic space. And so the Australia natives began crocheting a coral reef hyperbolic model. Ultimately, they wound up spearheading a worldwide crocheted coral reef movement, involving tens of thousands of hours of accumulated labor and a model that fills a 3,000 square foot gallery space.

Here’s an excerpt of the interview with Dr. Wertheim:

The crochet reef project for us comes out of our combined interest in both theoretical ideas — math, science, logic, etc. — but also our love and deep engagement personally with the techniques of handmaking, and the commitment of physical labor, and physical time that it takes to do those things. It is whole body, whole mind, and I think in some sense, whole being.

It’s a project that resists our inclination to divide and classify. Instead, it invites further thought about relationships, not only about the relationships between geometry and fine craft but about conservation and what we traditionally regard women’s work.   Now, there’s an idea that has some steam.

To hear the full interview, visit Here on Earth‘s audio archives and select the June 17, 2009 program.  And for more stories on the relationships between science and art, browse NPR’s Morning Edition series “Where Science Meets Art.”

–Tammy Kempfert

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: