SIAM News Blog

The Art of Math

Combine Math and Art Class to Help U.S. Students Achieve Better Math Scores, Says University of California Professor


Becky Kerner
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Thursday, May 31, 2018 

Riverside, CA – With declining U.S. student math scores, a California professor has come up with a formula he predicts will paint a prettier picture for the country’s STEM rankings.

John De Pillis, University of California, Riverside (UCR) math professor and author of bestseller 777 Mathematical Conversation Starters, maintains that combining math and art classes will draw better math performance for American youth, starting as early as elementary school.

“Both science and art are about converting the invisible to the visible, so they’re a natural fit,” said De Pillis, who is also a commercial artist and illustrator for math publications produced by Philadelphia-based Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), including its newsjournal, SIAM News. “Taking numbers off of paper and onto something students can touch and feel makes math significantly more relatable and understandable.”

Using creative artwork, De Pillis shared his views about the usefulness of math in everyday life at a UCR meeting of university affiliates and scholarship fund raisers last month, organized by the Governmental and Community Relations Office of the University of California, Riverside (UCR). 

According to Jeff Kraus, Director of Governmental and Community Relations Office of UCR, meeting attendees walked away with a better grasp and appreciation of math in our daily world. “Even those who aren’t numbers people left feeling that math was a more approachable subject than when they arrived,” Kraus said. “If this eye-opener was possible with adults, imagine the impact we could have on the younger generation with this approach reinforced earlier in life.”

Adding art to the classroom

De Pillis recommends that U.S. elementary and high schools consider installing whiteboards all the way around the classroom to provide students with the opportunity to use their artistic skills and draw scenarios to more easily visualize and figure out math problems related to what they’re learning – from algebra to geometry to probability.

Lessons in modeling and graphing can easily be translated into pieces of art, he said, explaining that even painted flower petals can be used to learn about patterns. For those who find memorizing formulas and calculating volume of shapes to be difficult, visualizing concepts through art – whether drawing, models or sculpting – can make them more relatable, accessible and understandable.

“It’s about taking an integrative approach and mixing the tangible with the abstract in order to better grasp what can be complex formulas,” De Pillis explained. “The result is that math becomes less intimidating and more fun, causing kids to naturally perform better.”

According to Jim Crowley, Executive Director of SIAM, visualization of objects is a prime way mathematicians get insight into the mathematical structures they create, whether geometric objects or a graphs. “Conversely, geometry can inspire art, as is evident in beautiful sculptures inspired by geometric objects,” he said, pointing to the work of American sculptor Helamon Ferguson as an example.

Crowley added that color images produced by computer simulation not only help to understand phenomena, but also can be considered art because of their beauty and power to inspire, such as the visualization by Konrad Polthier and Konstantin Poelke, which received an award from the National Science Foundation. “Is it mathematics? Is it art? Many such visualizations are both, producing objects of beauty while lending real insight into the mathematics underlying the various phenomena,” he said.

Brain gain

De Pillis points to studies that show both math and art skills draw from the same part of the brain, so strengthening one’s art abilities positively affects skills related to math. “The two go hand in hand and together cause the mind to think in new and unexpected ways,” he said. 

What’s more, he said that because art is known to evoke emotion, the integration of the two subjects can cause students to be more open-minded about math concepts, and more creative when solving mathematical problems.

De Pillis cited results from a December 2016 international math quiz by Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that showed U.S. high school students lag behind their global peers in math, ranking 40th in math out of 72 countries. The U.S. score was down 17 points from 2009 and 20 points below the average of others taking the quiz, which saw Singapore come out on top, followed by Japan, Estonia, Finland and Canada.

According to the OECD report, only six percent of the 15-year-old U.S. students who took the international math test had scores in the highest proficiency range, while 29 percent did not meet baseline proficiency.

“When it comes to the U.S. student math lag, it’s time to get creative with solutions – literally,” De Pillis said. As a case in point, he refers to his lighthearted illustrations in the SIAM math publications – which publish complex mathematical research and findings – as a way to simplify advanced concepts, enhance understanding in a fun way and interconnect the two disciplines.

Additional examples of mathematics and art overlapping can be found here: 

About SIAM
The Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), headquartered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is an international society of more than 14,000 individual, academic and corporate members from 85 countries. SIAM helps build cooperation between mathematics and the worlds of science and technology to solve real-world problems through publications, conferences, and communities like chapters, sections and activity groups. Learn more at


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