The connections between art and math aren’t always obvious— one is often taught as a core course, and the other is an elective. One requires the use of pencil and paper, and the other uses a vast assortment of mediums.
Yet they both require analysis and use multiple components (or equations) to make a whole.
Although traditionally kept apart, the rise in STEAM education has paved the way for art and math to combine to create a hybrid of math art instruction. Combining the pair can engage struggling students, students with different styles, and multilingual learners.
Teaching math through art can bring more learners into a better understanding of mathematics, makes math more fun, and shows that thinking mathematically isn’t so different from thinking creatively after all.
Math is already a part of art
Going back to ancient art, symbols often represented numbers.
In Mayan culture, numbers were displayed with a combination of lines and circles.
In ancient Egypt, large numbers were represented by hieroglyphs. If you wanted to write 100,000 in Egypt, you drew a frog. If you wanted to make a fraction, you used various hieroglyphs related to the eye.
Teaching students about the connection between art and math is easy if you go back in time. Many creative math ideas can use ancient symbols to translate modern numeric problems or vice versa.
Laying the foundation for students that forms of math art have existed for centuries can help open up other math project ideas that introduce a little bit of art.
These can be as basic as reminding students that the ruler they’re using to connect points they’ve plotted on a graph is the same tool an architect uses to design a building.
They can also be complex, such as calculating ratios when adjusting a papier-mâché recipe.
Why teaching math through art is so engaging
So many mathematical principles can be visualized in art. You can find patterns in a painting or see shapes in a sculpture.
Looking at art is already naturally engaging for students. The textures, colors, and the story behind how that piece of art was made can pique a student’s interest, which you can use to segue into a conversation on the mathematics within that piece of art.
It’s a new way to enter into the facts one must teach in math. You’re engaging in the math content after you have the attention of all your students rather than giving them the math first and trying to make it relevant after.
Being able to visualize math, utilizing the pieces of mathematics that involve spatial awareness, perception, and number sense, translates more to an artistically-minded person’s way of thinking than many of the fundamentally abstract principles of the subject.
It also doesn’t detract from those who are already mathematical thinkers. They can benefit from visualizing as well and may even become more engaged as a result.
Integrating art into creative math project ideas
Getting creative in math jazzes up the curriculum and allows everyone to look at math from a different angle. It makes basic formulas and concepts exciting to teach as well as to learn and hopefully creates a more accessible environment for everyone.
These are some projects you might consider trying in your classroom.
Shapes and Forms
Bridging the gap early between art and math means talking about shapes. These are the building blocks of art as well as geometry. A square is just a square with four equal sides until you stack a few on top of each other, add a triangle, and create a house.
Teaching young students to identify their shapes by having them build something with them, then tell you which ones they used is a perfect example of STEAM education and a seamless combination of art and math.
From the Fibonacci Sequence to a fractal, patterns have numerical and visual representations, and students can do both as math art to create a deeper understanding of each.
For a math project idea, ask students to use symbols to replicate the Fibonacci Sequence, grouping them appropriately to display the pattern. Maybe they have to theme their images, doing all flowers or all animals.
Drawing a fractal beyond that standard swirling line that can go on forever is a little more complex, so maybe the assignment here is to color in an already-drawn fractal to illustrate the continuation of the pattern into infinity.
Artistic Representations of Mathematical Tools
Whether you’re teaching your students how to count money or tell time, having a physical entity that helps in the mathematical lesson easily lends itself to something creative.
As students learn to differentiate between pennies, dimes, nickels, and quarters, have them rub each coin with a crayon and then identify them on a piece of paper. You could also ask them to do a rubbing of the correct coins to total a specific dollar amount, turning a math assignment into a very hands-on and artistic activity.
When it comes to telling time, having each student draw a clock with the hands placed correctly for a specific time lets them creatively design their response and then share their creation with their peers.
It also makes it easy for you to check that they’ve got the time right.
Charts and Graphs
Plotting data onto charts and graphs doesn’t automatically create a work of art, but what if connecting the dots does?
Giving students data sets that, when connected, will transform the graph into a shape as basic as a square or as fun as a star easily brings math and art together. You could also work backward and give students a shape they then have to figure out the plot points for.
Looking at algebra art, these same methods can be applied to drawing curves or parabolas, although you may get more creative expression out of a set of data points that create a curve.
However, parabolas lend themselves to great beginning shapes for a more detailed piece of art that students could conceptualize themselves.
You don’t have to isolate the ‘A’ in STEAM
Traditional thinking has kept most disciplines separate from each other. Even as STEM education emerged, certain subjects were isolated from the rest.
However, with STEM getting the ‘A’ added in, it’s finally accepted that the arts play into how we can learn those “hard” sciences.
Not only that but teaching math through art can make math more accessible and engaging, a massive win for all math teachers who may be used to seeing students struggle.