Inside USD

Powerful Collaboration: Origami, USD Mathigami Project

Monday, July 14, 2014

Would you feel safe traveling in a car if you weren’t sure the airbag was folded in such a way that it would function properly when it was needed most?

Did you know more than half million jobs in the United States can’t be filled because the nation’s workforce lacks sufficient knowledge in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields? What does the future hold for the U.S. when only about 25 percent of high school seniors are proficient in mathematics?

Feel powerless? Wonder what can be done to produce more confident, curious and critical-thinking students? What fun, creative activity can energize them?

The short answer is origami. A long-term education solution, proposed by the leadership actions of some University of San Diego students, alumni, and a dedicated administrative advisor, is Mathigami.

Origami has traditionally been a Japanese art form of folding paper to create colorful flowers and animal figures. Origami is now used to create very sophisticated art and to find solutions to challenges and innovate in medicine, robotics, architecture and more. Mathigami utilizes the artistic nature of origami to explore mathematical concepts that create greater interest in and more appreciation for mathematics among current and future generations.

The Mathigami Project, a partnership between USD and a local community center, is a pilot program started last September to empower students with mathematics and begin addressing the STEM shortage. College students in many different fields, including budding schoolteachers, introduced mathematical concepts through origami to more than 100 children between grades 3-5 in underserved communities and another 100 or so at all grade levels.

What Mathigami Project co-leader, Celina Gonzalez, a 2012 USD alumna, witnessed was more than the students’ excitement from creating origami fish and cranes. She saw them embrace the process and elevate their self-confidence and perseverance.

“‘I learned how not to give up,’” said Gonzalez, presenting feedback she received from a fourth-grader. “To me that was something special. Seeing students work through it, instead of just saying ‘I don’t get it,’ and not wanting to try it, was important. It was an opportunity, not an obstacle. That’s what we’re here to do. We want them to be inspired, to be curious and to dig deeper.”

College of Arts and Sciences Associate Dean Perla Myers, a professor and former department chair in USD’s Mathematics and Computer Science Department since 1999, is an admirer and proponent of origami to improve students’ affinity for math. She recommends origami to developing teachers as a way to provide opportunities for mathematical exploration.

Through origami, Myers said, students can gain a deeper understanding of many mathematical concepts including geometry, fractions, probability, symmetry and measurement. Through the Mathigami Project, “we’re able to teach the basic ideas and delve deeply into the mathematical concepts, opening the children’s eyes to the possibilities.”

Four years ago, Myers attended the international meeting on Origami in Science, Mathematics and Education (OSME) in Singapore. The conference brought together experts from around the world to share new, innovative ideas involving origami. Next month, the 6OSME will convene in Tokyo, Japan. Gonzalez, Myers and Mathigami Project student teachers will attend and give a presentation. They’ve been approved to film and produce a documentary on the conference.

“We will share the documentary with local communities and throughout the world so that more people understand the connections between math and origami, appreciate the beauty of mathematics, and realize the incredible creativity that allows origami to provide solutions in so many areas,” as stated on Mathigami’s Indiegogo.com fundraising page.

Many people, they believe, are not aware of origami’s wide reach. Likewise, the Mathigami Project student staff demonstrates origami’s diverse reach. During this pilot year 21 students and alumni in various disciplines and one professor worked with Mathigami. The USD students involved with writing a publication and creating the documentary of 6OSME are Paine Harris ‘16 (Electrical Engineering), who has expanded Mathigami’s reach this summer while teaching on an Apache reservation in eastern Arizona; Daniel Myers ‘16 (Computer Science); Tawni Paradise ’15 and Rishika Daryanani ‘16 (Industrial and Systems Engineering); Veronica Verplancken ‘16 (Liberal Studies/Biology); Anna Walsh ‘16 (Art); Walshe Izumigawa ‘16 (Neuroscience), and May 2014 alumni Elisabeth Yeruuldelger (Humanities) and Kerry Stanko (Mathematics, Single-subject Credential).

“My passion is to make math less scary and increase the students’ competence to use it,” said Bryce Lyon, who earned USD degrees in 2012 (BA Mathematics, Single-subject credential) and 2014 (MA). “We want this to be germane to how they think about things. When we teach it, you also want to see that they’re confident and they want to teach it themselves.”

Excitement for the 6OSME is growing. Perla Myers, Daniel Myers, Gonzalez, Daryanani, Walsh, Verplancken, Izumigama and Harris are scheduled to attend. In addition to a crowdfunding page, they’ve got a Mathigami Project Facebook page, Twitter and Instagram and hashtag #followthecrane to build awareness.

“Our goal is simple. We want people to smile when they hear the word mathematics; to see math as powerful and beautiful, and to approach mathematical challenges with confidence, leading to greater mathematical capability. Mathigami is our way to contribute to what needs to be a worldwide effort at all levels. We believe approaching math through the lens of origami will engage more children in math, including some who may have been lost through conventional methods.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

To donate online, Project Mathigami’s Indiegogo page is open until July 28, or go to the USD Giving page. Donations by check, payable to USD, can be sent to:

Project Mathigami
Dean’s Office, College of Arts and Sciences
University of San Diego
5998 Alcala Park, San Diego, CA, 92110

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