Category Archives: creativity

Urgent: An Outstanding Book Needs Our Support

In my post “Richard Feynman and Froebel Kindergarten” I praised Norman Brosterman’s book Inventing Kindergarten. I’ve been buying up used copies ever since it went out of print (because everyone who sees my copy wants to own one of their own). Now there is a chance to republish the book and get your own copy by supporting Brosterman’s Kickstarter Campaign. I hope you will make a pledge! But do it now–the campaign ends on July 12.

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A beautiful coffee-table style book with plentiful illustrations of early learning materials, Inventing Kindergarten tells the story of the Kindergarten system developed by Friedrich Froebel and its spread throughout Europe and the United States. Later chapters make a dramatic and compelling case for the influence of the Kindergarten materials and Kindergarten system on the art and architecture of the 20th century. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Nobel physicist Richard Feynman, among many others, were the sons of teachers trained in the Froebel system. Many, many big names of the past century, including Buckminster Fuller, Josef Albers, Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, and a host of other 20th century modern painters were educated using the Froebel blocks, paper weaving, and other materials–and their work, beautifully reproduced in this book, shows the influence clearly.

The book first appeared in 1997 and became a New York Times Notable Book, was called “Revelatory,” by The New Yorker, and won an American Institute of Architects award as one of the best books of the year. It has been out of print for several years, and Brosterman now has created the digital files necessary to republish it. However, money is needed to meet the minimum costs of an initial print run.

Brosterman’s Kickstarter campaign can be found here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1335652536/inventing-kindergarten

For a $50 pledge you can have a copy of the book, plus some nice supplementary note cards. Since the book initially retailed for around $50 (and I’ve been snapping up used copies on the Internet for about that price) you can do yourself a favor and help the rest of us at the same time. If Brosterman’s goal is met the book should be ready in time for holiday gift giving, too!

I hope you will support the reissue of one of my favorite books. And finally, please share this message with others you think might be interested in this wonderful work.

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Feeling Your Way Into STEM

I have the pleasure of being a part of the SEAD (Science, Engineering, Art and Design) Network, a group funded by the National Science Foundation to promote communication across thinkers in the sciences and arts. “Innovation stemming from interdisciplinary creativity is a major contributor to the development of new, sustainable economies and harmonious, cooperating societies,” their statement reads in part. Joining science and engineering with art and design is brilliant, and a trend I hope will continue to grow. These disciplines are clearly related, but our culture separates them at birth. Under the banner of “STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) to STEAM (adding an ‘A’ for Arts),” many scholars, activists, and policymakers are beginning to recognize and reconstruct the connections we’ve allowed to atrophy. SEAD has solicited, peer reviewed, and posted online a collection of White Papers, which I recommend for browsing.

My own SEAD White Paper is called “Thinking With Things: Feeling Your Way Into STEM,” and is a more extended treatment of some themes that will be familiar to readers of this blog. I advocate for the unity of “STEAM” and give some examples of how we might get to STEM topics through embodied, engaged learning that recognizes and celebrates the emotions, aesthetics, and the whole person. The SEAD Network leaders insisted, rightly, that White Papers include specific recommendations, and my paper has several, including: Select and create things to think with; Create on-campus spaces that are ecosystems for learning; Create and support “maker spaces;” and Create “labs” in art institutions and “studios” in science centers.

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Classroom Improvisation: a favorite moment from my teaching

I used to teach a research methods class that appealed particularly to students writing Masters and Doctoral theses. My students came from several different disciplines, and from all over the world. What they had in common is that they were all facing the terrifying prospect of having to do an extended piece of original research, and then to write what would be by far the longest research paper—a book, really—that they had ever produced. They were wonderful students to teach, because they were dedicated to making the world a better place, and because fear concentrates the mind wonderfully and made them very motivated to learn.

The class was a three hour seminar, and because three hours of talking can be deadly, I always had the students do something that took them out of their seats and got them using a different part of their brains. On this day, I had hung large pieces of paper around the wall. Each page had a different question or caption, and I asked the students to move around the room and write something on each sheet, in response to the question posed. One page said “The thing that scares me most about doing my research is…,” another said “What I most want to accomplish with my thesis is…” One said “A picture of me as a researcher.” This was the one I most enjoy, because the social sciences, which I teach, are so often entirely verbal and text driven. One of my favorite things to do with students in my classes is to use pictures, Lego, hands on exercises, and other things to get them out of a purely text-and-talking mode.

After the students were finished, I walked around the room, commenting on what they had written on the flipcharts. My last stop was the chart of self-portraits. In the bottom left hand corner was a little cartoon of a pig with wings, surrounded by the legend “when pigs fly” and “a snowball’s chance.” I knew who had drawn this one. I’ll call him Joseph. He was an engineer from a developing nation in Africa who was here in Massachusetts to get a doctorate, and his passion was the recycling and redesign of electronic products to prevent environmental harm. He was new to the US and homesick for his family, but determined to do well. He was struggling more than his fellow students, who had all been in their respective degree programs longer than he had. I had already spent considerable time with Joseph outside of class, at his request, because he was so concerned about whether he could do well in the course and had so little confidence in his ability to understand.

All the drawings showed students who were frazzled, at sea, overwhelmed, but Joseph’s was ostensibly the most hopeless. Although I didn’t look at Joseph when I pointed to his drawing, I could feel him tense as I began to speak. He had not signed his drawing, and I didn’t say whose drawing it was, but watched him out of the corner of my eye. I said “This student is afraid of not being able to do what he has set out to do. He thinks he will succeed only when pigs fly. Well, I have news for him. Pigs don’t fly, and they will never fly.” I could feel, rather than see, Joseph sagging into his chair as I spoke. “But the good news is, that although pigs cannot fly, there are other things that they can do very well. Pigs are great at hunting for truffles, which they detect through careful searching and dig out of the ground, like precious gems. Research is a lot like hunting for truffles—pursuing and finding gems of insight in a vast field of dirt. So for all of you, if you are a pig, don’t try to fly. It won’t work. But do what you do best—do what you are good at, and what you are passionate about, and you should be a good researcher.”

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Hyperbolic Crochet Web Site now open!

I promise I’ll write about things other than hyperbolic crochet, although I do find these planes to be great things to think with, and terrific conversation starters. My new web site on Hyperbolic Crochet, designed by Lowell photographer and web designer Daniel Coury, is now up and running. I hope you’ll take a look.

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Feeling Your Way into Computing and Math

I’m still obsessed with the many, many layers of meaning that I see in crocheted hyperbolic planes. Math (and recovery from math anxiety), systems theory, gender, materials, comfort, tangibles, emotion…the list goes on. I gave a “Flash Talk” (20 slides in 5 minutes) entitled “Feeling Your Way into Computing and Math” at the National Center for Women in Information Technology’s (NCWIT) annual Summit in Chicago in May. I had a great time, and got lots of positive feedback afterward. I would really appreciate your comments and suggestions! What do YOU see?

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Something Old, Something New

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately around people who think about creativity and innovation. Actually, it’s hard to avoid these topics. They seem so interwoven with life in 21st century America. But amid the rage for novelty and change, I have to wonder what we are losing. Maybe there were some good ideas that got lost along the way; perhaps part of our job is to reclaim wisdom with which we have lost touch, and try it on again in a new context, a new century.

While spending this time around the creativity and innovation folks, I’ve been thinking a lot about how certain sorts of everyday creativity–and creation–go unnoticed, or at least are undervalued. I’m leading an extracurricular activity, Sewing for Engineers, this year at the Olin College of Engineering, and I’m reminded how much skill and reasoning is involved in sewing. Patternmaking, thinking in 3D, characteristics of materials, order of operations, function, fine motor skill combined with structural knowledge. Sewing is a form of engineering, too, but less respected, perhaps, because of its association historically with women’s work, or because of its literal “softness.”

So how do we retrieve, uncover this sophisticated hidden knowledge?

Although women have made gains in most areas of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) in the US over recent decades, one area where women’s participation has actually fallen is in computer science. Advocates seeking to counter this trend have tried to change the image of computing culture and to convince girls that “robots are cool.”

Our work with Performamatics (http://teaching.cs.uml.edu/Performamatics), which brings together arts and computing faculty for joint undergraduate teaching, suggests an alternative approach with many benefits: bringing the fiber arts together with computing in a deep way that potentially enriches both fields. Quilting is associated with family, security, warmth, tradition, culture, artistry, craft—and women. Further, because so many cultures have rich quilting traditions (in the US, for example, many African American quilts are prized collectors items) underrepresented ethnic groups can also be positively affected by quilting as a gateway to computing. Quilting, valuable for its own sake, is also a potential route to technical fluency and careers.

Quilting and computing have many potential points of contact: like much indigenous and traditional art there are many mathematical ideas embedded in quilts (see for example http://www.ted.com/talks/ron_eglash_on_african_fractals.html.) Similarly, “computational thinking” can be seen in the production even of handmade quilts. Today many quilters are also using computer controlled sewing machines and Computer Aided Design (CAD). Finally, the work on “computational garments” is equally applicable to quilts. There is a wealth of knowledge and engagement here waiting to be discovered.

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