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Monday, March 13, 2017

Girls Knit Their Way to a Math Career | UMass Lowell

Photo: Holly Korbey
"Knitting and crocheting require mathematical thought. A growing movement hopes to use these crafts to interest girls in the sciences." reports Holly Korbey, journalism, essays,fiction.

In the basement of the North Branch Library in Nashville, Tenn., on a recent Saturday, you could hear alternating murmurs of excitement and exasperation over the soft clicking of needles. A small group of kids were learning how to knit.

A 10-year-old carefully knitted a case for his iPod with multicolored fuchsia, green and blue yarn, while a more experienced teenager carefully counted rows to create a raised pattern of the letters “H” and “K.” Young knitters racked up rows that one day, with practice, might become something — a blanket, a scarf or even, someday, a sweater. A nearby grownup commented on how nice it was to see young people so focused on making something, remembering how her brother once carved beautiful crosses out of a fallen tree in her yard. “He was always good with his hands,” she said.

For many of today’s kids, “being good with your hands” often means texting at lightning speed. While the Maker Movement has increased awareness and participation in building, tinkering and making things, most American students don’t learn any kind of formal handwork in school. Home-economics-style sewing and handcrafts classes, as well as shop classes, have been pushed out of most schools to make room for more “academic” subjects like reading, math and science.

But knitting and academics, especially math, are more closely related than they first appear, and there’s a growing movement in certain math and science circles to bring the two together — not only to teach math concepts also but to address the startlingly wide gender gap in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. As the number of women who choose STEM careers continues to drop, participation in knitting, especially among young women, continues to grow.

While the research is only in the beginning phases and no hard data is available yet, researchers are confident that knitting can be used to teach math concepts, and they are using the studies to figure out which concepts work best. They hope their findings will be used in the near future to convince schools that knitting a scarf or crocheting a sweater provides a unique opportunity for students to learn hands-on, problem-solving skills in a way that is fun and interesting. And they are hoping that bringing knitting into math class will alert girls to the career possibilities of STEM.

Researcher Melissa Gresalfi, an associate professor of math education at the Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University, says that textile arts like knitting can teach rich mathematical ideas that can be difficult for students to understand. Her KnitLab project, which includes afternoon workshops as well as week-long summer camps for kids, is part of a larger exploratory study into the overlap between complex mathematics, problem solving and textile arts like knitting and crochet.

Gresalfi expects that the four-year effort, supported by a National Science Foundation grant, will illuminate the usefulness of handcrafts to help students visualize and explore mathematical concepts. “We’re trying to say that the creation of textile designs becomes a resource that supports mathematical reasoning,” she says.

Gresalfi’s work is focused on middle school students ages 10 to 14. But she’s most interested in the girls — who have the highest math anxiety and lowest workforce participation in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

Source: UMass Lowell