Visual mathematics – math for art students - Higher Education
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Visual mathematics – math for art students

by Joan Morgan

Teaching math through art seems incongruous if you believe in the
“right brain/left brain” theory. But disproving this apparent
incongruency is the mission that John Sims, professor and coordinator
of mathematics at the Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota,
Fla., has undertaken.

“I don’t buy into this left brain/right brain thing of art on one
side and math on the other,” Sims says. “Most people think that art and
math are very separate, but they don’t have to be. I want to present
math as a creative enterprise and show that it can be taught creatively
and visually.”

Students attend The Ringling School to earn a bachelor of fine arts
degree. The school — founded in 1931 by John Ringling of circus fame
— is a private, independent, four-year college of visual arts and
design. It also offers animation and technology training.

Sims, who has studied in Germany, is a working artist and
mathematician who earned a math degree from Antioch College. He also is
a Ph.D. candidate at Wesleyan University, where Ringling found him
teaching calculus and offered him the opportunity to develop the
school’s math curriculum.

Sims’s art has been exhibited around the country. This summer, he
will present his ideas on “Pythagoras’ Theorem, Triangles, Triples, and
Art” — and his “Time Sculpture: a 21st Century Clock” at conferences
in Spain and Israel.

At Ringling, Sims has created courses such as visual mathematics,
creative geometry, mathematics and physics for animators, and art and
ideas of mathematics. Dr. Tina Beer, Ringling’s dean of liberal arts,
says Sims’s approach to teaching both math and art has brought a new
dimension to the campus — not only in the implementation of his
philosophy, but also in connecting the community outside the campus to
Ringling and the larger world of art and design.

That is exactly what Sims’s teaching did for former student, Chris
Sampson, who says he barely made it out of high school geometry.

“[Sims’s method] took something so abstract and made it so I could
see it,” Sampson says. “Looking at math like that really excited me. I
started to lose my fear of math.”

“My role as an educator, mathematician, and an artist is to show
[students] the importance of mathematics to the visual arts,” Sims
explains. “I’m trying to tell art students, you can be analytical in
your work and that mathematicians can be very expressive. Math can help
them extend their sight’ by confirming what the eyes can’t see.

“We are now seeing that very often it is the artist [who] is asking
the interesting questions that lead mathematicians to do some of their
work,” he adds.

This conflicts with the training of some artists, who disdain calculation.

“It’s not about calculations, it’s about understanding a process
and repeating a process, creating symmetry, and making certain kinds of
choices,” Sims says. “And as [students] do that, they manipulate the
process, notate the process, and they are doing visual mathematics, I’m
teaching them mathematical thinking behavior. And you can apply it to
lots of different things.

“I can see how this might affect the pedagogical landscape,” he
continues, “because this process is fun, engaging, and people come away
feeling like creators.”

And there is another benefit Sims sees in his teaching methods.

“So much of math at the undergraduate level is geared toward
calculus — which is geared toward doing physics, biology, and
science,” he says. “I’m not saying people don’t need to take calculus,
but I think this is a wonderful supplement and also a wonderful core
course for people who don’t want to take those high level math courses.”

According to Sims, there has always been a natural convergence of
math and art. Even before the Renaissance, math brought what is called
“perspective” or depth and dimension to art, he explains.

“Some of the first applied mathematicians were painters like Piero
della Francesca and Giotto di Bondone, whose art reflected their
notions of infinity and parallel lines and creating depth from a two
dimensional surface,” notes Sims. “Giotto, who lived in the fourteenth
century, was one of the first to bring this to art.”

One of Sims’s main interests is ethnomathematics, which was
introduced to him by retired MIT professor Dr. Dirk Struik. It explores
the relationship between math, social structures, and the cultural
activities of a community. It also looks at how mathematical ideas have
been encoded into art work.

It’s a wonderful way to teach math from a design point of view,” says Sims, who has been influenced by Dr. Paulus Gerdes.

Gerdes is a world renowned expert in the field of ethnomathematics
from the University of Mozambique. He will speak at Ringling as part of
a lecture series Sims is creating for the school. An example of his
influence which Sims has adopted is the African Defence motif — which
Sims took from Gerdes book, Ethnomathematics and Education in Africa,
and uses to prove the Pythagorean theorem.

“The students love, it, For them, the mathematical learning experience becomes creative and empowering,” Sims says.

Former student Anders Martensson agrees. “It has made math more interesting because I like art.”

Sims is currently working on a textbook, Visual Mathematics, that
is geared for artists. He also is planning a mathematical/art
exhibition at the Selby gallery in Sarasota. And in the year 2000, an
installation of his Time Sculpture — a collection of chess sets,
clocks, and vases — will appear throughout Manhattan. The Time
Sculpture will be strategically placed around the island and represents
his vision of the nexus between art and time in the next millennium.

“In it, I’m trying to show how to use art and design work to get
people stimulated and motivated about the mathematical process. Even
traditional fine art such as portraits, it can be argued, involve art
in the form of symmetry and proportions,” he says.

Sims also plans to collaborate with Gerdes in creating an
international center for mathematics, art, design, and education.
Calling him very ambitious, Beers says Ringling wants to support Sims’s
idea for the center. But, she adds that fully realizing his vision will
require a development strategy, for identifying potential funding

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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