2 Mar 2017

Maths & crafts: Using crochet and origami to teach mathematics

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 1:22 pm on 2 March 2017

Most of us probably think of crochet and origami as part of the field of arts and crafts, but two mathematicians are showing they can also be a pathway to mathematics.

Dr Jeanette McLeod and Dr Phil Wilson plan to introduce people to maths concepts by demonstrating how these ideas are intertwined with crafts. They'll be inviting people around the country to join them to learn how to knit a mathematical knot, crochet a Möbius strip, fold an origami tetrahedron or colour a Latin square.

"I'm a pure mathematician, I work in something called combinatorics, so I really don't work in anything to do with the real world," Dr McLeod said.

"For me, having something tangible like craft, where I can show mathematics, is just fantastic."

Mathematics were already used in a wide variety of crafts, she said - for example in knitting to get the pattern and the size right.

Being able to hold a three-dimensional object in one’s hands could help decipher certain concepts such as hyperbolic geometry, Dr McLeod said.

“This hyperbolic plane [the second picture in the gallery above] is a shape we see in nature a lot because it maximises the surface area, so for instance, in my crochet, which I can hold in my hands, it's pretty big,” she said.

“It's got half a kilometre of yarn in it, but if I knitted a scarf with that yarn it would be enormous.”

Origami was also useful for learning about geometry, Dr McLeod said.

“We can make mathematical shapes like the platonic solids in origami. You have to be very, very precise when you do it, so understanding angles, understanding fractions…”

The project, Maths Craft, has been awarded funding through Unlocking Curious Minds, which aims to engage young New Zealanders in STEM subjects - science, technology, engineering and mathematics - to take the concept to schools and institutions around the country.

Dr McLeod said she hoped the tour would help to teach people about the creativity of mathematics.

“I've had friends ask me if I just sit in my office doing long division all day and that's not at all what maths is.

“It's highly creative, it's very playful, you've got to be unafraid of making mistakes and getting things wrong.”