8 reasons why we should combine art + math

From better comprehension to higher U.S. math rankings, here are compelling reasons for merging these two disciplines

With declining U.S. student math scores, our schools would be wise to adopt a new formula that is sure to paint a prettier picture for the country’s STEM rankings. Combining math and art classes may in fact draw better math performance for American youth, starting as early as elementary school.

Here are eight reasons why schools would benefit from merging math and art classes.

1. Improved comprehension. Both science and art are about converting the invisible to the visible, so they’re a natural fit. Taking numbers off of paper and onto something students can touch and feel makes math significantly more relatable and understandable. It’s about taking an integrative approach and mixing the tangible with the abstract to help students better grasp complex formulas.

2. Concept visualization. When students have the opportunity to use their artistic skills and draw scenarios, they can more easily visualize and figure out math problems related to what they’re learning—from algebra to geometry to probability. Lessons in modeling and graphing can easily be translated into pieces of art, for example. Even painted flower petals can be used to learn about patterns. For those who find memorizing formulas and calculating volume of shapes to be difficult, visualizing concepts through art—whether drawing, models, or sculpting—can make them more relevant, accessible, and clear.

3. The fun factor. It’s no secret that math can use a boost in the “favorite subject” category. In fact, math is often associated with fear, boredom, and irrelevance. Adding art to math class makes math less intimidating and more fun, leading to increased interest and causing kids to naturally perform better.

4. Increased inspiration. Combining math and art increases creativity among those who are strong in math and strong in art. According to Jim Crowley, executive director of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), mathematicians get insight into the mathematical structures they create by visualizing objects. Conversely, he says geometry can inspire art, as is evident in beautiful sculptures inspired by geometric objects, such as in the work of American sculptor Helamon Ferguson.

5. Technological appreciation. Viewing the world through a combined math-and-art lens provides students with unprecedented insights. Take computers, for example. SIAM’s Crowley explains that color images produced by computer simulation (which involves math) not only help to understand phenomena, but also can be considered art because of their beauty and power to inspire. He cites the visualization by Konrad Polthier and Konstantin Poelke, which received an award from the National Science Foundation. Is it mathematics? Is it art? Many such visualizations are both, producing objects of beauty while lending real insight into the mathematics underlying the various phenomena, says Crowley.

6. Brain-building. Math and art skills draw from the same part of the brain, so strengthening one’s art abilities positively affects skills related to math. The two go hand in hand and together cause the mind to think in new and unexpected ways.

7. Mind-stimulating. Because art is known to evoke emotion, the integration of the two subjects can cause students to be more open-minded about math concepts, and more creative when solving mathematical problems.

8. Improved U.S. math rankings. A December 2016 international math quiz by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showed that U.S. high school students lag behind their global peers in math, ranking 40th in math out of 72 countries. The U.S. score was down 17 points from 2009 and 20 points below the average of others taking the quiz, which saw Singapore come out on top, followed by Japan, Estonia, Finland, and Canada. Only six percent of the 15-year-old U.S. students who took the international math test had scores in the highest proficiency range; 29 percent did not meet baseline proficiency. It’s time to get creative with solutions, and interconnecting the two disciplines in a lighthearted way will go a long way in making U.S. students more competitive on a global scale.

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