Posted by Toni V.S. | 11:04 AM | 9 comments »

Anyone who has seen the Harry Potter films, is familiar with the roving staircases in the buildings. One minute they’re going up, the next they head in a different direction—perhaps down or to the left or the right. One has to be vigilant to make certain one jumps to the correct staircase to get where one needs to be. This same concept has been used to advertise the newly-named SyFy Channel as characters from the many series wander around a building filled with live-animal balloons, clouds of butterflies and staircases which may suddenly turn upside-down, leaving the person standing on it still held in place and unaffected by Newton’s Law of Gravity.

This weird and wonderful concept is the work of Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972), a Dutch graphic artist. As Wikipedia puts it, Escher is known for his "often mathematically-inspired woodcuts, lithographs, and mezzotints...and explorations of infinity, architecture, and tesselations" (which is a geometrically-formed pattern using small squares, a shape repeated again and again across a flat surface with no gaps or spaces).

Mercy, That's a mouthful.

A young Nebraska math teacher didn't find Escher's creations so intimidating, however. This year, he began incorporating Escher’s graphic tesselations into his study course to teach his students math. The concept of tessalation has been around for millennia and was recognized as art since the 14th century but Escher is considered its most well-known proponent and generally its creator.

Most tessalations are made with stencils but they can be made freehand by taking a shape, cutting out a piece, and placing the removed piece so it connects with the rest.

In his lessons, the teacher has his students make their own tessalations, then recreate them to scale, thereby helping them learn how math relates to patterns and shapes.

“…you notice something different every time you look at them…for…people who say they are good at art but bad at math, there’s a lot of math in art…so they may be better at math than they think…” he explains. The students enjoy them and find it easier to comprehend the lesson when seeing it in this visual display, especially if they themselves have created what they're looking at.

Makes me wish I'd had a teacher who knew about Escher when I was first learning math--and later, too. I bumbled through grammar and high school just barely squeaking by in the numbers department because I couldn't grasp any correlation between what I was being told and how to do it. I have a Bachelors in Art, and a Diploma in Graphic Design but I never got higher than C- in math in high school and scored my only D in college when taking a required Algebra course. And I won't even tell you what happened in Trig (also required).

I'm admittedly mathematically illiterate. Tests have proven it, but according to this teacher's theory, I should be able to incorporate my art education into my math non-education, so there may be hope for me yet!

(This article is excerpted from Images, the newsletter of Geneva North High, Geneva, Nebraska, Volume 9, #5, March, 2010. It is produced by the Geneva North High Journalism Class.)


  1. Patrice // May 1, 2010 at 12:15 PM  

    Hi Tony,
    I don't think I can pronounce tessalation little alone do it! Thanks for the informative blog.

  2. Mary Ricksen // May 1, 2010 at 12:52 PM  

    I love art, but I stink at math. Maybe that's why I never made it as an artist?
    Well I was good at algebra. Does that count?

  3. Mary Marvella // May 1, 2010 at 1:10 PM  

    Another fabulous post, Toni. Thanks.

  4. Beth Trissel // May 1, 2010 at 1:29 PM  

    How interesting. I love those staircases in Harry Potter.

  5. Scarlet Pumpernickel // May 1, 2010 at 10:40 PM  

    I teach Algebra and we usually include a until on tesselations. The kids love them.

  6. Barbara Monajem // May 2, 2010 at 9:50 AM  

    Love M.C. Escher's stuff. It's fun brain exercise.

  7. Joanne // May 2, 2010 at 11:13 AM  

    Wow, Toni, what an interesting article. Can you believe I've never seen a Harry Potter movie?

  8. Mary Marvella // May 2, 2010 at 6:24 PM  

    Joanne, I saw two of the Harry Potter movies on TV. That's all.

  9. Autumn Jordon // May 2, 2010 at 9:11 PM  

    Man on man, that school has a wonderful teacher. I wish there were more like him. Making learning fun is so important, especially for those who do struggle.

    Great post!