My current project in CEP 818 – “Creativity in Teaching and Learning” was to observe an object tied to my topic area (functions in mathematics) and to re-imagine it, appealing to a different sense than originally intended.
First, a note on the importance of observation: Robert and Michele Bernstein, authors of Sparks of Genius, point out that “All knowledge begins in observation. We must be able perceive our world accurately to be able to discern patterns of action, abstract their principles, make analogies between properties of things, create models of behavior, and innovate fruitfully .”
And now, the re-imagining of the graphing calculator.
Any math student that graduated from high school in the last two decades probably used one and I can guess (although I might be wrong in some cases) that it was used to get answers quickly and easily. In fact, as I was observing this device from every possibly angle and sense (okay, I didn’t lick it…) I noticed that it screamed simplicity. It is a no frills, unexciting, almost heartless object. Take 30 seconds and look at the image below. There is not much about that calculator that screams “Hey you, let’s do math and it’ll be awesome!” To be clear, it is incredibly powerful, but it is often underutilized as an exploration device and over used as a “shortcut machine”.
This may seem irrelevant to the learning of mathematics but it doesn’t help the plight of the math teacher that is trying to motivate students. I hadn’t considered this before, but I started thinking “Is this a device that I want to use?” I love mathematics but this device, although it is simple, is not elegant and not a device that I look forward to using. It is fraught with ugliness. From the black and green display to keys that seem randomly colored, there is much to be desired in terms of design. I believe that if we redesigned this device to be aesthetically pleasing and still powerful, functions and mathematics in general would be more accessible.
If you haven’t bought into this yet, consider your favorite technological device. My guess is it’s your phone (and if it isn’t, humor me for a minute). First, I bet the ratio of the sides is close to the Golden Ratio, which creates the most visually appealing rectangle. I would also guess that it fits nicely in your hand, that the interface is intuitive yet attractive, and that it balances power with beauty. The feel and design of this device make you want to use it. What if a calculator had that same appeal for math students? (The GIF below represents the potential of moving mathematics to the devices we use most often.)
In addition, this is not how I see mathematics. I see math as a beautiful framework within which we can describe the natural world (and even if we couldn’t, it is still beautiful). Functions are like an engine that can be constantly modified to describe an infinite number of situations. If we can find ways to relay the beauty in mathematics and functions to students then I think (and admittedly I’m aiming high) we could ultimately shift the culture to one that views math as elegant and powerful, not just an obnoxious requirement to get a diploma.
A note on the above GIF: Each one of these graphs (with the exception of the smiley face) is a function or two functions graphed together. I used desmos.com to create the graphs. I think that tools like Desmos, which runs on all smartphones (the devices we actually like to use) can help students to visualize functions as well as other mathematics. (Here are some of the functions I used.)
Bernstein, R., & Bernstein, M. (1999). Sparks of genius: The thirteen thinking tools of the world’s most creative people (p. 30). Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin.