Shelley Latham Outreach Coordinator

Building Bridges Between Art and STEM

PostedThursday, September 6, 2018 at 2:04 PM

Building Bridges Between Art and STEM

My mother, Susan Latham, is a sculptor who derives a great deal of inspiration from the natural world and sacred geometry. She has been a passionate advocate for the use of art in science and math education since she wrote her master’s thesis over 40 years ago. You could call her a STEAM (the "A" stands for art) education visionary.  A sculpture of hers was recently the inspiration for a mathematics paper on geometric folding by an Austrian PhD student. Which is why I found myself at an International Math Art Conference in Stockholm, Sweden in July. While I was there primarily to support and celebrate my mother’s work, I was delighted to be dropped into a world of very excited artists, mathematicians, scientists, and educators who come from all over the globe to celebrate interdisciplinary education, creativity, and innovation.

The Bridges Math Art Conference is four days jam-packed with keynotes, long and short paper presentations, workshops, performances, art exhibitions, and even a short film festival.  Paper titles range from the obscure like Virtual Crocheting of Euclidean Planes in a 3-Sphere and Compound Parallelohedra Building Blocks with Creature-Like Morphologies to the more approachable, like Methods for Designing a Hinged Cube Puzzle and Learning Mathematics through Games. All in all, there were 110 academic papers presented interspersed by hands-on workshops such as Folding Curlicue and Exploring its Mathematical Properties. Coffee breaks, or fika as they say in Sweden, were full of networking and discussion. Bridges attendees are people who like to collaborate and share ideas and there was a feeling of kindred spirits meeting.  Although some of the topics were a bit esoteric on the page, the work presented was full of playful inquiry and good humor.  Here are some things I learned that have relevance to pk-12 engineering education.

Card workshop


Workshop: Mathematical Magic with a Deck of Cards

What better way to jump into interactive, interdisciplinary math fun than learning a few card tricks?  Pedro J. Freitas and Tiago Hirth, mathemagicians from Portugal taught us a few “simple” card tricks revealing the number patterning and mathematical structure that lie at their core.  However, understanding and practicing card sequencing does not a magic trick make.  Magic is largely about the performance. One must develop trust, pique interest, and capture the focus of the audience before one can create an illusion with distraction. And this is where the art meets math. The more comfortable a magician is with the mathematical concepts, the more creative they can be in their performance.  There are interesting takeaways for the STEAM educator looking to draw students in and spark engagement and wonder. A good card trick makes the audience want to know more, to figure out how it was done. The magician also has a problem to solve: how do I make this simple trick seem more complicated? Like the engineering design process, one must try an idea and make adjustments if they don't work. In their workshop paper, Frietas, Hirth and collaborator Jorge Nuno Silva suggest “For the interested scholar, educator or scientific communicator, the magic trick can serve as a starting point for investigation, conversation or presentation, a way to create empathy and create interest in the spectator.”  Sounds very much like what excellent teachers do.

STEAM Roundtable Discussion

Bridges created an evening event and invited all the presenters and attendees with an interest or focus in the interdisciplinary teaching of art and STEM subjects. Chris Brownell, associate professor of mathematics and STEM education at Fresno Pacific University moderated a free ranging discussion with educators, artists, researchers, museum directors, mathematicians, and scientists.  Everyone present expressed the need to connect creativity to the teaching of science and math, and everyone endorsed a multidisciplinary approach.  Some of the artists urged the study of art be taken seriously in its own right.  Andreas Bauer, from Ars Electronica Center in Linz, Austria, stressed that art should be seen as an equal player, not just as an entry point or fun link to STEM subjects.  Paul Moerman, a dancer, engineer, and educator insisted that art teaches skills and values that extend beyond making math and science accessible, such as empathy, community, and imagination.  Hannu Salmi of the University of Helsinki encouraged us to think of STEAM education beyond the confines of classroom walls and consider the powerful effects of informal learning.  He used the  word “art” to represent learned skills and technique--pulling in the crafts and trades in addition to imagination and creative expression, a distinction often found lacking in most discussions about the role of art in education.

There was a fair amount of bemoaning the challenges and slow rate of change in their countries' educational systems. I jumped into the conversation to talk about the role that engineering has to play in STEM and the adoption in many American states of the Next Generation Science Standards which require the teaching of engineering design and problem solving.  Two hours whizzed by and the group resolved to stay in touch.  If you have an interest in what is happening in international STEAM education, and would like to join the follow-up group, send me an email.

4D Frame workshop


Workshop: Renewable Energy Resources for Mathematics Learning: Windmills and Water Wheels in the Math Class

4D piecesThis session essentially served as an introduction to the versatile and fun Korean educational tool and building system called 4DFrame developed by Ho-Gul Park. Park led the workshop which utilized a windmill and waterwheel kit, containing different length straws and various sized stars and snowflakes to connect them. The workshop exercise, designed for grades 3-9, involved making a windmill with a water wheel. Although students follow a plan, careful attention has to be paid to the angle of the blades and the length of the straws to make the windmill work. I had to carefully evaluate why my windmill was spinning the wrong way and why the completed project wasn’t sitting square on the table, a good 3D spatial reasoning workout. The kits allow for many challenges and variations that teams can work on to introduce engineering concepts and collaborative problem solving.

Interestingly, the 4DFrame system has been adopted by Finland and other Nordic countries to introduce flexible, problem solving projects to their STEM/STEAM curricula. Both Finland and South Korea are amoung the top performers in international assessments of math and science achievement, even though they have radically different educational cultures.  South Korea has tended to rely on rote memorization and high stakes testing while Finland has prioritized student happiness and life balance.  Both South Korea and Finland have recently reworked their curriculum standards to include more collaborative, phenomena-based, multidisciplinary approaches to science and math education, which sound not unlike the the vision of the Next Generation Science Standards in the United States. The 4DFrame system is being used in 13 countries for open-ended design challenges  and has grown to include international student competitions. Hopefully, someone will introduce 4DFrame to the US market, so American kids and teachers can get in on the stimulating fun.

However, the most compelling idea from this session was the simple statement by presenter Kristóf Fenyvesi, University of Jyväskylä, Finland, who explained that the goal of the Finnish educational system is student happiness.  An important reminder that learning can and should be joyful.


There were other thought-provoking presentations about STEAM approaches, informal learning, and the latest neuroscience research on how children learn at the Bridges Conference.  Far too many ideas to include in this article.  You can find all the published papers here

I want to end this blog by finishing the story I began with—my mother’s sculpture and the young PhD student who spent a year researching the math behind the art.

AttractionThe sculpture, Attraction, was my mother’s interpretation of the Vesica Piscis-- the first proposition of Euclid’s Elements, featuring two circles that overlap.  You might recognize the shape as a Venn diagram. My mother did what sculptors do and developed the form in three dimensions.  What I learned at the math conference is that some things can exist in the world but not be represented mathematically. In order for it to exist mathematically, a phenomenon or object needs to be able to be described with a formula.  Attraction caught the eye of designer Tony Wills in London who challenged Klara Mundilova, a PhD student at TU Wein Austria, to prove its geometric existence.  Which she did, making some interesting discoveries along the way.  I will confess that the math goes over my head. But, this story is not just about math.  It is a story about an 86-year-old sculptor living in Santa Fe, NM  inspired by an ancient Greek mathematician to create a work of art that inspires a 24-year-old geometry scholar in Austria to prove “a two-parameter family of shapes obtained by folding two overlapping circles, so that their boundaries coincide and the involved surfaces are cylinders or cones.” If this isn’t a perfect example of why we need to remove the boundaries between art, math, engineering, science, and technology in education, I don’t know what is.

Sue and Klara

Have you been inspired and energized by a professional conference lately?  Tell us all about it in the comments.


Photo Credits:
Top: Geometrical Object Making For Design Thinking Workshop courtesy Gizem Aytac, designer of GOM a multidisciplinary educational design toy pictured above. More information at
All others courtesy Shelley Latham


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  • Linda  Kekelis

    Posted 3 years and 2 months ago

    Shelley--thanks for sharing. I really like the idea of writing about a conference. How often do we attend a conference and get excited while listening to speakers and hearing new ideas, but return to home, jump into work, and forget about the conference? I know that happens to me. After my last conference I made a promise to myself that going forward I will write a blog about my reflections from a workshop, interaction with a speaker or another attendee, or hands-on experience at the conference.