Feeling Your Way into STEM

Sarah Kuhn
15 August 2012
Dept. of Psychology, University of Massachusetts Lowell, USA
Blog: http://thinkingwiththings.wordpress.com/

Just over a year ago, I discovered an object that changed my world. It’s called a crocheted hyperbolic plane. A hyperbolic plane is a mathematical object, and a crocheted hyperbolic plane is a yarn model of that object, made with some simple crocheting.

In formal terms, a hyperbolic plane is a surface of constant negative curvature—sort of the opposite of a sphere, which is a surface of constant positive curvature. If you find it hard to imagine, you’re in good company; until the 19th century, a hyperbolic plane was thought to be an impossible object. The first crocheted hyperbolic plane was made by computer scientist and mathematician Daina Taimiņa, using the skills she had been taught as a girl growing up in Latvia.

My relationship to math had been one of misery and torment, from grade school all the way through graduate school. Hyperbolic crochet has turned my relationship to math upside down, and has shown me a very different route into math and computing that can help to avoid—and even reverse—the anxiety and pain that some of us experience as we move through the math education system in the U.S.

Crocheted hyperbolic planes have many layers of meaning, moving well beyond what we normally think of as math. As “evocative objects,” they are an elegant and engaging gateway into such topics as systems theory (illustrating emergence), the beauty of math, symmetry, and pattern (for those who do not see beauty in school math), algorithms (the crochet instructions are an algorithm), gender (fiber arts in the U.S. today are a comfort zone for most women), comfort and recovery (our research study shows a reduction in math anxiety), and 3-D cognition and visualization (a skill lacking today in many college students), and the role of emotion in learning (people love these things!)

Hyperbolic crochet can change the world. How?

– Reimagine math and computing curricula for formal and informal settings
– Leverage “thinking with things” and maker culture in learning
– Use existing social networks of knitters, weavers, and other fiber artists to spread an alternative view of math and computing
– Workshops to reduce math anxiety in teachers, parents, and students