Each month, Refraction Education will bring you the ideas, experiences and advice of an individual in the field of education. This month we spoke to Melissa Silk, teacher at the International Grammar School Sydney, who, along with her colleague Jane Martin, is creating exciting projects for students in the STEAM movement that integrates the arts into science, technology, engineering and maths.

Tell us a little about your work…

We’re hearing a lot about STEM, and there are a lot of international schools that are engaged with STEM, but there aren’t many that are embedding the arts into STEM. We’ve designed a role here called ‘STEAM innovator’ because I became interested last year when I did some self-funded professional development in the ‘STEM to STEAM’ approach, which a lot of American schools are looking at.

The history is that a couple of years ago now, Jane Martin and I started teaching a course at The International Grammar School Sydney called ‘Thinking Hyperbolically’, which was a cross-curricular attempt at really drawing out the creativity that can be found in mathematical theory and the application of maths to an aesthetic form.

I then took it into the design and technology visual design strain, and started embedding mathematical ideas into product design for students in Years 9–10. Then last year I took some of those ideas over to the Momath, the National Museum of Mathematics in New York. I had already been developing a project based on biomimicry and origami sekkei (mathematical paper folding) at a level that high school students would be able to understand. We turned it into a lamp project because previous work at the school had proven that students really like making things to do with light. When something lights up, generally a human being feels quite happy! So that’s how that project got to be placed in Momath.

The photographs are basically a culmination of three classes of mathematical paper folding and a big group workshop called Winter Wonderlamp we held in January at Momath. We had about 90 participants for a two-hour workshop where we went through the maths and then we all made a lamp! That was partially funded by the Association of Independent Schools (AIS) STEM grant 2014, so that’s how that project got to be placed in MOMATHS.

We’re trying to do more outreach with lamp design because it’s a really good project and it’s making people happy, as well as being challenging and mathematical enough to be rated as a STEAM project.


What other projects are you working on?

Some bigger projects that we’re working on at the moment, with primary and high school, involve embedding different aspects of STEM. We’ll be doing something for the ‘lightwave’ themed National Science Week, a star project called tanabata, which is a Japanese bilingual project delivering ideas about maths and science to primary school. There will also a big music project later this year, where we’re going to embed augmented reality into a performative music piece using mask-making based on the New Guinea mud men from a visual arts sculpture class. So we’ve got some ‘ideas-smashing’ going on, that’s for sure!

Where do you usually get your inspiration from for these projects? Do you have a background in art and design?

Yes I do. I worked as a designer for many years before becoming a teacher. I’ve always been interested in the application of mathematics because I think it’s really challenging – I wouldn’t say that I’m particularly skilled in that area, but I really like collaborating. I have the view that you don’t have to know everything yourself because you can work with other people to produce something collectively, which has probably been my aim for my entire working life.

How do students usually react?

It generates a lot of discussion! There’s a lot of “Oh, that looked really hard but actually it was quite easy,” and “This looks really complicated but once you actually get to know what to do it’s OK”. More than that, I think the joy in achievement when you fold a piece of paper in a complicated pattern and it works, is just priceless. Students get a lot of enjoyment out of it; it was even translated quite well into artwork and design for their HSC major projects if they could make that link. I think what generally happens in schools is that students themselves see subjects as disparate areas, and they don’t really make the links between the areas until it’s really forced upon them.

Do you have any ideas how there could be more dialogue between disciplines at a school level in future? Is that something you believe could be beneficial?

Yes I do, but it’s really dependent on recognising the connections between teaching personnel and economics – both financial and temporal. There has to be an investment in collaborative projects. I go to quite a few conferences where I see this being supported, but at a state level I believe that the Department is looking at STEM as a priority without a focus of how to bring the arts into it. There’s a lot of that happening at a tertiary level and also in industry, so I think it’s just taking a little while to filter down. I think the focus should be on supporting the teachers that can make these things happen in schools.

What’s the best or most exciting part of your job?

I think the best moments are when you bring a project to fruition and then step back and have a look at what the group of students or workshop participants have collectively made – and see the joy on their faces.