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MathsArt #3 – Education of Maths with Art: unexpected doors opened, through the study of mathematics

This is a blog by Amber Ellis (M.Sci student in Mathematical Sciences – Penryn Campus). It focuses on Amber’s experience in studying the education of maths through art at primary schools, aiming to highlight how the study of maths can lead to many avenues. Amber originally studied this topic for her third-year dissertation as one of the projects offered by Dr Houry Melkonian. She has since taken the opportunity to continue researching the topic with Dr Melkonian who is leading the ‘Mathematics and Art’ project at the Education Incubator.

As a child, maths often came easy to me, I found much satisfaction in the interactions of numbers and shapes. Despite my affections for the subject, I never much enjoyed maths lessons. I felt the often clinical and bland presentation did not showcase the colourful world of maths that played out in my head. It was likely, due to my strong creativity that I was able to envision the subject in such a way. Creativity fuelled in me a love for crafts, visual arts and even drama. However, as I aged, I sensed growing pressure to choose between the two paths, academia or the arts. This pressure came to a front when I had to choose a university course. After a failed attempt to study a joint course in maths and film, due to a lack of other participants, I opted for a straight maths degree. Though I was thrilled to be diving headfirst into the world of mathematics, the artist in me felt neglected. Little did I know of the opportunity to explore my creative side that awaited me.

A list of topics was presented to us, from which we were to choose a dissertation theme. I scrolled down reading past titles such as ‘Passive Dynamic Walkers’ and ‘Seismic Interferometry and Imaging’. Despite seeming interesting, these titles just did not grab my attention. Then I saw it, ‘Mathematics and Art’, and immediately I knew it was the topic for me. Dr Melkonian then suggested that we explore the theme of education for this research project. I had always felt education could be imeproved, especially that of maths. The more I considered using art for this purpose, the more it made sense, and seemed obvious. Learning maths is often seen as mundane or onerous, maybe incorporating art was the answer!

The focus was on primary school level maths, where students at this age commonly love art. The chance to use one’s creativity, get hands-on, and explore exciting concepts such as shapes and colours all while getting messy. What is not to love? When students enjoy what they are doing they are likely to be more engaged, leading them to perform better. As I further explored the concept, three key motivations for exploring the study of maths in this way came to light.

Firstly, one of the enticing features of creating art is that one cannot fail, it is often the case with art that there is no right or wrong. When it comes to maths the fear of failure is often a deterrent to students. I hoped that the use of art in the education of maths might combat this.

My second motivation addressed time pressure, another common deterrent to students studying maths. With art there is no expectation for rapid results. Instead, time is often taken to thoroughly consider each step of the process.

Finally, the visualization of processes can be valuable in assisting the understanding of such processes. A further advantage identified relates to gender stereotype associated with subjects. Often arty subjects are more commonly portrayed as ‘girly’ with boys often expected to excel in maths and the sciences. By combining subjects, we may combat such gender roles.

The next step was creating activities that fulfilled my vision. I gathered my art supplies and the Year Five maths curriculum before getting stuck in. I was making activities that aimed to be satisfying and enjoyable. This meant that the process of devising such activities was, in itself, satisfying and enjoyable. This harnessed a fragment of my childhood self that lies within me. Full of curiosity, joyfully eager to play, create and discover.

The real satisfaction came from seeing students engaging in the activities. We trialled activities twice at a local primary school and it was a success! We arrived, the first time, expecting six students and were unexpectedly faced with a whole class of thirty. After a quick trip to the photocopier, the lesson went wonderfully. Throughout both sessions, students were engaged and amused with most producing successful results. Students who had said they disliked maths relished the activities. A highlight for me occurred when a student approached me to show me mathematical patterns occurring in their work.

The process of creating and testing activities taught me a lot. Regretfully, I had to adjust two of my aims. Failure is ingrained in maths, while one may play with concepts without the risk of failure, an activity that aims to demonstrate the use of a specific skill is likely to require a chance of non-success. Other limitations arise from operating within the school environment. Removing time pressure is difficult in a scheduled timetable and available supplies must be considered.

Throughout university, I had feared when the time would come to complete my dissertation. Writing has never been my strong point. As a mathematician, I had always preferred numbers to letters (unless it’s algebra). For this reason, I felt a deep sense of pride over my finished project and in myself. This was enhanced by my winning of the 2020 College award for the Most Innovative Research Project. I believe the key ingredient in the project’s success was that I was doing something I was passionate about.

I am extremely lucky to have the opportunity to continue researching the project with Dr Melkonian, thanks to funding from the Education Incubator. This is alongside my Masters which focuses on environmental sciences. Maths has not only allowed me to branch out into the arts, but I have also explored bio-sciences, geographies and even social studies. Without a doubt, my favourite part of the week is when I get out my colouring pencils and begin exploring the next learning objective in order to devise an activity. Despite my enjoyment, it is often tough, I am not always happy with the results and can be faced by creative blocks. I often need to remind myself that it is not meant to be perfect yet. That is the point of research. The concept is constantly growing as is my knowledge.

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