Teaching Symmetry Through Art

The word “symmetry” describes an object that is the same on both sides when it’s divided into halves. For example, if you perfectly cut an apple vertically down the middle, it will be “symmetrical”—the same on both sides. Symmetry is an important concept in both math and art, two fields that people don’t often think of as being related. However, our Urban Teacher resident Ms. Hornbeck recently taught an engaging geometry lesson to Ms. Smith’s students that mixed math with art and invited students to create artworks displaying mathematical symmetry.

Inspired by artist Kehinde Wiley (who painted former President Barack Obama’s presidential portrait), Ms. Hornbeck began by printing out pictures of his paintings and asking students to identify and trace the lines of symmetry found in his pieces. The students quickly noticed one of his reoccurring artistic themes, identifying his use of repeated symmetrical patterns in the decorative backgrounds of many of his paintings. Next, they discussed creating their own artwork with a symmetrical patterned background, and then used materials like isometric dot paper, graph paper, or plain white paper to help them plan out their own symmetrical artwork. Once everyone had finished their designs, Ms. Hornbeck duplicated the background on a computer and took pictures of the students; finally, she digitally cut each student from the photo and placed them in front of their symmetrical backgrounds.

When asked why she designed this math-meets-art experience she responded: “It is very important, especially in math, for the students to feel invested in what they are doing. By creating a self-portrait, a lot of the kids were thinking about non-math related things, like ‘what pose am I going to do?’ or ‘what color is my design going to be?’ But, they had to integrate math into their pieces for it to be acceptable and meet the design criteria. When it was time for the students to take their geometry unit exam, symmetry was a breeze!”

This open-ended activity required a lot of work for both student and teacher, but it was worth it. It allowed students to tap into their imagination and creativity while demonstrating a basic but important mathematical concept. In the end, Ms. Hornbeck couldn’t be happier: the kids had fun while improving their math skills. Thank you, Ms. Hornbeck, and good job students!