Researching math through art

Dr. Jo Towers with a child’s artistic interpretation of math. supplied

Dr. Jo Towers with a child’s artistic interpretation of math. supplied

Happy faces, thunder clouds, disembodied heads: These are some of the images produced by K-12 pupils who were asked to draw how they feel when they are doing math. The drawings are part of a research study at the University of Calgary’s Werklund School of Education to understand how personal relationships with math are established and how teachers can improve education to enable students of all ages to better connect with STEM subjects.

The Mathematics, Experiences Images and Identities research project is led by Jo Towers, research professor at the Werklund School. It is an initiative of Partner Research Schools, a collaboration between schools, communities and universities with the aim of leading innovation through research-active inquiry and practice.

Students’ math autobiographies are a key focus of the research, and using art as a way to explore how children feel about math often provides unexpected insights, says Dr. Towers.

“We recently noticed that many children’s drawings of themselves doing math showed a disembodied head – just a head floating above the desk. It’s something we need to investigate further; it’s as if the children are saying ‘bodies are superfluous when you’re doing math; there’s a lot thinking going on and not a lot of doing.’”

Dr. Towers says children are aware of the importance of math, but overwhelmingly even those students who self-report they like math and are doing well don’t plan to pursue it in post-secondary education. This reluctance to study math has a direct impact on the number of students who study STEM-related disciplines.

Dennis Sumara, dean of the Werklund School, says STEM disciplines are crucial for future generations to solve significant and complex problems. At the Werklund School, a STEM course is mandatory for all undergraduate students.

“Typically, teacher education is taken from a generalist approach. Yet research shows if a student becomes highly competent, confident and capable in a discipline, he or she becomes a stronger and more successful teacher,” he says. “We think it is really important for all teachers to be expert in a subject area and to be able to teach that across the curriculum. That’s pretty unique, and that is why our STEM initiative is so successful.”

If you would like to submit your own anonymous math autobiography as part of the study please go to:

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