Colourful way to learn math

Colourful way to learn math

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Colourful way to learn math

Rangoli or kolams can go a long way in making mathematics a fun and enriching learning experience, finds out Hema Vijay.

The traditional South Indian art of drawing designs on the ground, using rice and colourful mineral powder could be more than an art or tradition. Rangoli or kolams have a deep relationship with mathematics! 

Could you really turn the dots and lines of kolams into algebraic equations? Or explore the essential properties of geometric forms, symmetry, number theory, congruence and equivalence, and a dozen other mathematical concepts through kolams?

Well, Dr. Sunita Vatuk does this! A Fulbright-Nehru Research Scholar and a professor at City University of New York with a PhD in pure math from Princeton University, she has now self-specialized in teaching mathematics through kolams! She has worked extensively with math teachers in high poverty schools in New York City, and New Jersey.
She has also given workshops for children and teachers on ‘Math and Kolams’ at City University of New York, Rutgers University, the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, and many other universities and museums.

As an academician, Dr. Sunita uses geometric methods to classify hyperbolic systems of partial differential equations. Earlier this month, she visited Chennai City to give an interactive lecture on seeing kolams through a mathematical perspective. Currently, she is working on a book with Tara Books on exploring math through kolams, and kolams through math.

“Math is a powerful way of analyzing the world, of organizing knowledge, and looking at the deeper picture. You can teach math through kolams to very young children and to older ones as well. And sometimes an alternative approach lends insight”, she says.
For instance, she uses the pookolams (flower pattern kolams) to help kids understand the number and pattern of dots that have to be repeated to enlarge the kolam without losing its design pattern, to explore length and relationships in geometry, and in dimension analysis.

“Or for that matter, since many complex and large kolams can be generated by repeating a single unit of it in a variety of ways, it helps children understand abstract algebra, because this shows you how units behave while combining”, Dr. Sunita explains.

“Sometimes, it is difficult for kids to recognize math concepts in abstraction. Seeing it as a visual pattern or doing it through a kolam helps. In kolams, there is problem solving, exploration, and creativity involved,” she says. She staunchly believes that mathematical concepts like multiplication, or even more complicated math concepts, should be taught in the context of real life situations, rather than as mere numbers, to make math more interesting to the kids.

Classrooms have a tendency of stressing on marks and structured learning. In that kind of atmosphere, kolams can be prove to be a fun way of using math. “But it shouldn’t be like ‘Today, we will learn ‘X’ concept from ‘Y’ kolam’.

Rather, kolam-math should be a free-wheeling, explorative session. Just allow children to draw kolams before posing questions. Get kolams to trigger curiosity and questioning”, Dr. Sunita suggests. Teachers can devise problems in kolams too, apparently.

It was when she came to Chennai, in 1999, that she first came across kolams. “I was simply astounded to come across math in such an unusual context of a traditional floor art. Women drawing these kolams don’t see it as math. But it is a truly mathematical ability. Ironically, these very women tend to tell their children, ‘Don’t waste your time on kolams, do math homework instead”, she muses.

“You don’t think of kolams as an answer to a mathematical question, but it is! And so kolams help us understand that things that are not generally considered math might have a great deal of math in them.”

She likes kolams for an altogether different reason too. “Not many relate math to women or to art. Teaching math through kolam underlines a way of telling boys that, down the ages, girls have been doing a lot of math too”. Indeed. Why should boys have all the fun!

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