Category Archives: science

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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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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Richard Feynman and Froebel Kindergarten

In the same essay I discussed in my last post, “What is Science” by Richard Feynman, the great physicist describes his childhood introduction to science.

My father did it to me. When my mother was carrying me, it is reported–I am not directly aware of the conversation–my father said that “if it’s a boy, he’ll be a scientist.” How did he do it? He never told me I should be a scientist. He was not a scientist; he was a businessman, a sales manager of a uniform company, but he read about science and loved it.

Feynman’s father bought “a whole lot of rectangular floor tiles from someplace in Long Island City.” Father and son played with the tiles, and Mel taught his son to make patterns with the different colored tiles. In telling this story Feynman makes his assertion that “mathematics is looking for patterns.”

In a parenthetic note, Feynman continues:

The fact is that this education had some effect. We had a direct experimental test at the time I got to kindergarten. We had weaving in those days. They’ve taken it out; it’s too difficult for children. We used to weave colored paper through vertical strips to make patterns. The kindergarten teacher was so amazed that she sent a special letter home to report that this child was very unusual, because he seemed to be able to figure out ahead of time what pattern he was going to get, and made amazingly intricate patterns. So the tile game did do something to me.

I read this, but it wasn’t until I was waking up the following morning that I realized that ‘paper weaving’ rang a bell. I sprinted to my bookshelf and pulled down one of my favorite books, Inventing Kindergarten by Norman Brosterman. Brosterman describes the educational thought and innovations of Friedrich Froebel, the visionary German with a background in crystallography, who invented the original Kindergarten system. Active during the first half of the 19th century, at a time when children younger than seven rarely had a formal education, Froebel developed a series of physical materials and activities designed to expose young children to fundamental ideas of form and relationship. Best known today are the beautiful wooden blocks in geometric shapes, but there were many other materials as well, including the “peas work” with it’s small spheres and toothpick-like rods (an inspiration to the young Buckminster Fuller) and paper weaving.

The first half of Brosterman’s book is a fascinating and thoroughly-researched account of the development and spread of Kindergarten, first under the inspired and committed hand of Froebel, then under the leadership of his disciples, who established not only Kindergartens but also teacher training programs. But it’s the second half of Inventing Kindergarten that is truly revelatory: Brosterman makes an extraordinarily compelling case, in words and images, for the impact that the Kindergarten system had on art and design in the 20th century. Many of the top figures of art, architecture, and design attended or were exposed to, as Brosterman documents,  Kindergartens: from the pioneers of the Bauhaus, to architectural titan Frank Lloyd Wright, to the creator of “design science” and the geodesic dome Buckminster Fuller. In text and in remarkable images, which place the work of anonymous Kindergarten students and teachers side by side with pictures of the strikingly similar work of leaders of Modernism, Brosterman creates a tour-de-force argument for the impact of Froebel’s system.

By the time Feynman was born in 1918, Kindergarten was very widely established not only in Europe but also in the United States. His attendance at Kindergarten, and his instruction in paper weaving, are directly attributable to the remarkable innovations of the man who was active a century earlier. Brosterman’s focus is on innovators in the arts; can a similar argument be made about 20th century scientists who are known to have gone to Kindergarten? Suggestive evidence is probably all we will ever have, but I would argue that in Feyman’s case the suggestive evidence is strong. And there is a crucial piece of evidence whose significance is invisible to biographer James Gleick as well as to Feynman himself. Early in his book on Feynman, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, Gleick mentions in passing that before her marriage, Feynman’s mother Lucille trained as a Kindergarten teacher at Felix Adler‘s Ethical Culture School in New York. Eureka!

Happily for me, Norman Brosterman is easy to find on the Web. I sent him an email asking him his thoughts about the influence of Kindergarten on scientists. His gracious reply included the following:

I always assumed modern physics was influenced by Froebel but never had proof…If Feynman’s mother was a trained kindergartner you can be 100% certain she used the gifts, the system, and the philosophy with him at home when he was a boy. Remnants of the original system were still widespread in public schools but would not have been as “pure” as what he got from his mother.

Two things strike me immediately: The first is the complete absence of Lucille and her influence from Feynman’s account. Her only appearance in Feynman’s 1966 talk is as the wife who says to her husband, “Mel, please let the poor child put a blue tile if he wants to” (instead of following the rigorous patterns Feynman’s father was determined to teach.) I’m sure Mel and his aspirations had a profound impact on his son, but Feynman’s gift at paper weaving that so amazed his Kindergarten teacher surely come as much from his mother’s influence. Here again, as in the previous post, we witness the invisibility of women’s intelligence and women’s minds to both the young and the mature Richard Feynman.

The second striking thing I have already foreshadowed. Was the remarkable, visual, unorthodox Feynman’s way of seeing the world profoundly influenced by the Kindergarten system as he encountered it in his own home? Feynman was the first-born, and a boy for whom his parents clearly had ambition. It’s hard to imagine that he was not decisively shaped by a way of thinking and doing that had attracted his mother, even before his birth.

It is worth quoting at length from Inventing Kindergarten (but you should also read the entire book):

In effect, the early kindergartners created an enormous international program designed specifically to alter the mental habits of the general populace, and in their capable hands nineteenth-century children from Austria to Australia learned a new visual language. While focusing on kindergarten’s many educational and social benefits, these pioneers overlooked a potentially radical outcome of their efforts that is obvious in retrospect: kindergarten taught abstraction. By explicitly equating ideas, symbols, and things, it encouraged abstract thinking, and, in its repetitive use of geometric forms as the building blocks of all design, it taught children a new and highly disciplined way of making art. Like spokes on a wheel–separate at the rim, but connected at the hub–every lesson of the original kindergarten led from diverse vantage points to a central truth. Simple linear thinking was to be superseded by a more sophisticated, genealogical approach to knowledge that valued relationships as much as answers. The grid of the kindergarten table was symbolic of a type of inquiry that drew from multiple sources, cut across and connected seemingly unrelated data, and had the potential to result in more than one ‘correct’ conclusion. By emphasizing abstraction, kindergarten encouraged the value of unconventional reasoning. (p. 106)

Although Brosterman’s emphasis is on the Froebel system’s impact on the arts, it is no reach to think that Froebel, a trained scientist, would have been drawing at least as much on the fundamentals of science and nature as he developed his system. Was Feynman, the unconventional and deeply visual thinker, inventor of the abstractions known as Feynman diagrams (in addition to many other important contributions) influenced in essential ways not only by his father’s doting tutelage but also by the Froebel system in which his mother was steeped? The shoe fits; let’s walk a mile in it.

Feynman diagram (source http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Feynman-diagram-ee-scattering.png#file; accessed 18 March 2012)

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Richard Feynman and Women’s Invisible Skills

Like so many others, I am a great admirer of Richard Feynman, the great 20th century physicist, Nobel Laureate, and overall “curious character.” Known for his brilliance, he was also known for being an extremely visual thinker. This is probably why I like him: for me, he is an exemplar of a great mind that got to very deep ideas by an unusual and often-overlooked route.

A recent comment by my friend Herb Lin sent me to one of Feynman’s essays, “What is Science,” in the collection The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. The essay is the text of a speech Feynman gave in 1966 to the National Science Teachers’ Association (shout out to NSTA, whose e-newsletters often point me to useful resources). In it, Feynman tells a couple of tales from his early years, as a way of describing how he learned “what science is like.” After describing his very early education (more on that great story in the next post) he continues:

When I was at Cornell, I was rather fascinated by the student body, which seems to me was a dilute mixture of some sensible people in a big mass of dumb people studying home economics, etc., including lots of girls. I used to sit in the cafeteria with the students and eat and try to overhear their conversations and see if there was one intelligent word coming out. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered a tremendous thing, it seemed to me. I listened to a conversation between two girls, and one was explaining that if you want to make a straight line, you see, you go over a certain number to the right for each row you go up, that is, if you go over each time the same amount when you go up a row, you make a straight line. A deep principle of analytic geometry! It went on. I was rather amazed. I didn’t realize the female mind was capable of understanding analytic geometry. 

She went on and said, “Suppose you have another line coming in from the other side and you want to figure out where they are going to intersect.” Suppose on one line you go over two to the right for every one you go up, and the other line goes over three to the right for every one that it goes up, and they start twenty steps apart, etc.–I was flabbergasted. She figured out where the intersection was! It turned out that one girl was explaining to the other how to knit argyle socks. (Pgs. 175-176)

I have quoted at length because this section is such a rich trove of things to think with. The first–and it was Feynman’s reason for telling the story–is as an illustration of Feynman’s repeated assertion that Mathematics is Pattern. I find this a wonderful and generative idea. I love pattern, particularly patterns made by ancient and indigenous groups, but I have always associated this love of mine with the arts, especially fiber arts. It never occurred to me that instead of turning right from pattern and getting to the arts, I could turn left and be in the realm of mathematics. I am slowly learning this, first from the wonderful work of Ron Eglash on ethnomathematics, and now from Feynman! It’s like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia. Why didn’t anyone tell me! I feel cheated by my long, tedious, and painful mathematics schooling.

I hope you are still with me, and have not thrown your iPad across the room in disgust. The second point, of course, is the extraordinary sexism of the passage.  Although I find it reprehensible (and he digs himself in even deeper in the paragraph that follows these; I will leave it to you to read the original essay) I will say in his defense that he was a man of his time. I was a freshman in high school when Feynman gave this talk, and although I know I have repressed a great deal of what I heard, this was a very common attitude toward women. Not everyone was as outspoken as Feynman, but the fact that he so clearly articulated his position, and that he was open to revising his opinion of women based on this experience, puts him ahead of many men in mid-20th century America. A plea to young people reading this: do not forget how far we have come! Do not take these gains for granted–anyone reading the news these days must know that women’s rights are under attack even in 2012, and that it would not be difficult to lose hard won gains. When I hear, “I am not a feminist…” I want to ask “What aspects of patriarchy are you especially fond of, then?”

Finally, for me, this story from Feynman reveals, in the words of a great thinker, the deep connection between mathematics and the fiber arts–knitting, weaving, and so forth. Most people, I think, believe that “women’s hobbies” and mathematics are opposite poles: concrete vs. abstract, female vs. male, informal vs. formal, casual vs. professional. Why do I love crocheted hyperbolic planes and, now, argyle socks? They are emblematic of the fact that it just ain’t so!

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