STEM + Knitting: Finding a Place for Craft in the Classroom

Whether it’s through robotics, design, or even knitting, students are finding new ways to engage with STEM concepts. Left to right clockwise: Photo courtesy of Melissa Gresalfi, photo courtesy of Colorado TSA, photo courtesy of Getty Images.)

This article was originally published in Interweave Knits Winter 2019.

I found myself in a ballroom overflowing with middle school–aged students. In fact, they were spilling from the room and filling the lobby of the large hotel. As one of the event coordinators, I was in the dubious position of trying to establish order among the chaos. I struggle to describe just how loud a room full of middle schoolers can be, but I can say that their energy, excitement, and enthusiasm for the day’s event was both impressive and awe-inspiring. They were assembled for Fashion Design, a competition in which students research, develop, design, and create garments that reflect a given challenge. By name alone, this event might not sound like anything special, but this competition was held as part of the Colorado Technology Student Association (TSA) State Conference, a national group that strives to promote science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in secondary schools across the country.

When Colorado TSA introduced Fashion Design, an event that was primarily focused on art and craft, it was uncertain how students, who had always focused on traditional STEM-based challenges, would receive it. Despite the initial unease, the event’s popularity with students was instant and overwhelming. Ballrooms meant to hold 300-plus people now overflow with students waiting to compete, and it’s become one of the organization’s most popular events.

In response to the enthusiasm for craft- and art-based events, Colorado TSA is creating more competitions and events that blend the arts with more traditional STEM-focused challenges. Some still struggle to see the correlation between craft and STEM, so groups such as Colorado TSA and KnitLab, led by Melissa Gresalfi at Vanderbilt University, are working to change that.

Students in the KnitLab program at Vanderbilt University learn engage with math concepts by designing their own knitted objects. Photo courtesy of Melissa Gresalfi.

Students in the KnitLab program at Vanderbilt University learn engage with math concepts by designing their own knitted objects. Photo courtesy of Melissa Gresalfi.

Middle-school students compete in Colorado TSA’s Fashion Design competition, which brings STEM and craft together. Photo courtesy of Colorado TSA.

Middle-school students compete in Colorado TSA’s Fashion Design competition, which brings STEM and craft together. Photo courtesy of Colorado TSA.

UNRAVELING THE CONNECTION

According to Gresalfi, an associate professor in Mathematics and the Learning Sciences at Vanderbilt University, the problem with STEM—particularly mathematics—starts with its bad reputation. This reputation forms when students learn STEM concepts primarily through listening, replicating, and practicing, because these elements of engagement barely scratch the surface of the concepts being taught. Many students and adults alike find the idea that mathematics involves problem solving, play, mistakes, and personal judgment inconceivable—a problem that Gresalfi and her research team at Vanderbilt is trying to solve.

“This problem is a major focus of the field of mathematics education—transforming mathematics instruction such that it better matches the authentic practices of mathematical use in the world,” says Gresalfi. This has led her work to center around finding ways to integrate mathematics in everyday practices so students recognize mathematics as a tool that they can use to solve problems. “Knitting, of course, has a long history of using mathematics as one of its many tools,” says Gresalfi, “and thus we set out to explore its potential as a context for engaging mathematical thinking.”

It’s no secret to any knitter that knitting involves math. “Anyone who has modified a pattern so that it fits better, or to accommodate a different weight yarn, has engaged in mathematical thinking,” Gresalfi explains. This idea—engaging students in a new way of learning math that utilizes real-world applications such as knitting tools—inspired Gresalfi and her team to create the KnitLab program. This series of summer camps and after-school clubs at Vanderbilt University creates a space where kids can learn to knit and to design their own objects.

“Almost none of the kids who come to KnitLab know how to knit, but kids are fast learners; we find that typically it only takes kids a couple of hours before they are knitting relatively fluidly (though of course not error-free, which never happens, even to the most expert knitters). The fact that knitting involves making and repairing mistakes is one of the things that supports mathematical thinking—reading your work, finding problems, and fixing them are all essential elements of problem solving and is often cited by expert knitters as an indication of growing expertise with the craft,” says Gresalfi.

Instead of being given patterns to work with, the children at KnitLab engage in a series of design challenges with a set of constraints. “As an example,” Gresalfi describes, “we often start with the ‘square challenge,’ which involves making anything you wish, as long as it is composed of one or more squares. This challenge becomes mathematical as soon as students determine that they have a size in mind (how many stitches will you need to cast on?) or decide that they want to form their square into something else, or, most commonly, decide that they want to create an object composed of more than one square using different weight yarns. Mathematically calculating stitch gauge involves multiplicative thinking, ratio, proportion, and estimation, especially for students (and adults!) who find knitting gauge swatches to be a chore. In exploring these design goals, students engage with mathematics in a very different way than they do with pencil and paper and usually come to understand and see something quite different about concepts than they noticed when first encountering the concepts in school.”

STEM involves problem solving and play. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

STEM involves problem solving and play. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Students compete in an underwater ROV challenge at the Colorado TSA State Conference. Photo courtesy of Colorado TSA.

Students compete in an underwater ROV challenge at the Colorado TSA State Conference. Photo courtesy of Colorado TSA.

Entries in the Colorado TSA Fashion Design competition, in which students were tasked with making garments using only recycled materials. Photo courtesy of Colorado TSA.

Entries in the Colorado TSA Fashion Design competition, in which students were tasked with making garments using only recycled materials. Photo courtesy of Colorado TSA.

BRIDGING THE GAP

In Colorado TSA’s Fashion Design competition, students engage with STEM concepts in a similar way to the students in KnitLab. Designing a sewing pattern to fit a specific model requires mathematical planning, and understanding the properties of different textiles to construct a garment requires engineering. We might soon see programs that blur the line between art, craft, and STEM continue to grow. This integration will likely result in hearing the question “When am I ever going to use this?” less frequently and provide students more opportunities to notice the STEM concepts that are always around them.

What the Fashion Design competition and Gresalfi’s work with KnitLab show us is that students crave to learn STEM concepts through the lens of real-world applications. And although we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of the interconnectivity, real-world tasks such as sewing and knitting are proving that art and craft can and should have a place in STEM.

Hayley DeBerard is the editorial coordinator for Interweave Books.


A FOUNDATION FOR STEM

Founded in 1958 as the American Industrial Arts Association (AIAA), Technology Student Association, or TSA, is a national organization of students engaged in STEM. The organization consists of over 250,000 middle- and high- school students, and more than half of its current membership is female. All students can compete in a variety of STEM-based events through TSA while engaging with charitable programs and outside-the-classroom experiences that foster lifetime leadership and life skills.

Check out the Colorado TSA or National TSA websites for more information and to learn how you can get involved.


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