Wonderful Engineering

This Professor Teaches Advance Mathematics Through Knitting

Sara Jensen is a math professor who teaches math with knitting needles and wool instead of using the traditional calculators and textbooks. The assistant professor of Mathematics at Carthage College has a mission to get people to understand math as a method of better understanding of the world around them. The way she has adapted to teach is through knitting and by observing real-life objects.

Assistant professor of Mathematics, Jensen, shared her special math classes and results of teaching this way in a blog post. She began by recalling asking a group of college students to tell the first word that comes to their mind when they consider mathematics. She said that “calculation” and “equation” came as the top answers. When the same question was posted to professional mathematicians, they responded with “critical thinking” and “problem-solving.” She explained by saying, “What professional mathematicians think of as mathematics is entirely different from what the general population thinks of as mathematics. When so many describe mathematics as synonymous with calculation, it’s no wonder we hear “I hate math” so often.”

The Mathematics of Knitting class starts with students knitting throw cushions which demonstrates an essential aspect of mathematics, that is an equivalence. Jensen said that ‘fundamental to math is the equation, and crucial to this is the equal sign.’ She gave an example of x=5. Mathematically x has the same value as 5, which is the number 5 and the value of x must be the same. She says that in life, things are not always clear and often two quantities are not the same but are also essentially the same by some criteria.

To show this, students in her class knitted throw pillows and the patterns that they made on the pillows showed equivalence when moved around physically. She taught another topic through her craft called the ‘rubber sheet geometry’. This field asks the learner to imagine the whole world to be made of sheets of rubber and then reconsider what that means for shapes and topography. If you think this is difficult, then perhaps you can think of it with a knitting example. A way to create round objects like gloves or socks is with knitting needles called double pointed needles.

The hat is created using three pointed needles which make the object take the form of a triangle, however, once complete and the needles removed, the hat or glove softens and forms a circle. Rubber sheet geometry proposes that a triangle and a circle can be the same if they’re made out of a flexible material. In this field, all polygons can take the shape of a circle. Students in ‘The Mathematics of Knitting’ class spent the time to knit various scarves and other round objects to play around this theory. Jensen says that by using this teaching tools, she can open up the world of mathematics to a huge audience and can help them embrace mathematical thought in their daily life.

Here is another professor talking about the mathematics of knitting: