Better STEM Education Through Crafting

By Meghan McGrath

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

What can we learn from the mathematical roots of traditional women’s crafts like knitting or crochet, and what might that mean for STEM education?

That’s what Dr. Kylie Peppler hopes to investigate, in her NSF grantwinning project, "Designing Tangible Manipulatives Rooted in Traditional Female Crafts,” a collaboration between IU and Vanderbilt Univesrity. Peppler, an Assistant Professor in Learning Sciences and a CEWiT Faculty Leadership Team member, will begin the project with an ethnographic survey of crafting communities.

“We're arguing that women crafters are highly congizant of the relationship between math and craft, and their crafting practice is a lived mathematics,” says Peppler. She cites e-textiles and the popularity of maker faires among women in STEM, noting the unique opportunities that result from a mixture of craft and computing. “If you look at the Crochet Coral Reef, a TED talk, there's a lovely connection between women's craft and advanced mathematical concepts of hyperbolic space.”

Mathematicians had only been able to theorize about hyperbolic space until the late 90s, she explains, when a female professor at Cornell University (who was also a crafter) discovered that hyperbolic space could be crocheted. To this day, crocheting remains the best method mathematicians have of modeling hyperbolic space and embodying the experience of it. “It really contributed to mathematics,” says Peppler. Twin sisters Margaret and Christine Wertheim, a science writer and CalArts professor respectively, later used the same method to crochet coral-reef-like structures that drew attention to the effects of global warming. Their Crochet Coral Reef project is almost ten years old now, with satellite “reefs” all over the world. “There’s been no shortage of women who want to participate in this,” says Peppler. “We've been overlooking a community that is highly mathematical.” She and the “Designing Tangible Manipulatives” team are hoping to study and learn from traditional female crafting groups in order to discover new and better ways of bringing STEM fields into the classroom.

Math and science, especially among middle-school students, have historically been taught with an emphasis on abstract ideas and theorems. Peppler wants to "rethink the culture of mathematics in the classroom and transform what we do in class” in order to engage more students in STEM education. “Take Calculus, for example,” she says. “We don’t tend to have tangible memories of it, except for solving equations on paper. Advanced manipulatives like embroidery can help us think about calculating, for instance, the area under a curve. It helps us have a better understanding early on, and a better memory later.”

The ultimate goal for the project is the development of hands-on, innovative approaches to math and science curricula, and a wider range of students engaging in STEM. “There is an untold story here, with rippling implications for education,” says Peppler. “In the long term, we're hoping to really better understand and rethink classroom mathematics culture so that it's more relevant for use.”