String Theory: Projects Merging Math, Art, and Making

Recipes for large and small-scale geometric string art projects from Todd Burleson, SLJ's 2016 School Librarian of the Year.
xxxx Todd with kids. Photos courtesy of the author

Todd Burleson with students at Hubbard Woods School in Winnetka, IL.
Photos courtesy of the author

Fourth graders at the Hubbard Woods School in Winnetka, IL, where I am a library media specialist, have enjoyed geometric art projects for years. Judith Campbell, our school’s math facilitator, teaches them to illustrate geometry concepts using pencil, paper, rulers, and protractors. Drawing a series of straight lines on a graph, the students create parabola curves in increasingly complex designs.

They also fashion math-based sculptures using string and nails. Following a pattern, they tie colored string between nails that have been hammered into a piece of wood in a grid, resulting in symmetrical 3-D designs.

Last year, we took this concept to a much higher level. My students and I created a giant, outdoor 3-D math sculpture with parabolas. I had seen a photograph on Facebook of a huge artwork made with colorful tape extended between stakes arranged in a circle. It was the handiwork of Amy Hartman, an art educator at Elmwood Franklin School in Buffalo, NY, and artist Ani Hoover. I knew we had to do this with our students. Our school has an outdoor classroom—a perfect location. Judith and I proposed the idea to the fourth grade teachers, and they were thrilled. Here’s our recipe.

Giant outdoor sculpture

Ingredients Working with the kids, we estimated how much of each material we would need. We decided our circle would be 25 feet across. We purchased eight 150-foot rolls of surveyor’s tape in different colors, two bundles of 24-inch stakes, and two eight-foot-long planks of wood. The total cost was about $50.

1609-Strigtheory-boystringyardCreate We gathered three classes in the outdoor classroom, which, conveniently, is circular. To begin, we reviewed how a protractor functions and strategized how we would work on such a large scale. To create a giant, flexible angle, we bolted the planks together on one end.

Time for some math. We had 31 stakes to demarcate the circumference. We did some quick mental calculations to determine the proper angle measurement between stakes. We divided 360 degrees (the circumference of a circle, of course) by the number of stakes—31—and came up with approximately 11.6 degrees.

Guided by our small protractor, we set our giant angle at 11.6 degrees and clamped on a cross piece to maintain it. (As it turned out, our angle was too short to reach the outer edge of our circle, so we improvised by extending it with string.)

The classes divided into two groups. The first hammered a stake at the center of the circle and planted the rest of the stakes around the circumference every 11.6 degrees, numbering each stake.

For our first pattern, we decided to stretch pink tape between every 13th stake. Tying the tape to stake 1, a student connected it to stake 13, wrapping it around three times. Then the student counted 13 more stakes, and so on. We continued this pattern until we went all the way around and reached the starting stake. Then we chose new tape colors and began new patterns, counting every 15 stakes, then 17, and so on. Visual designs quickly appeared!

1609-Strigtheory-HOPESmall-scale string art

Here’s a simple, flexible string art project to take on with students; my favorite shapes to create are a rectangle or a heart.

Ingredients A large piece of three-quarter-inch plywood, which typically comes in four-by-eight-foot sheets. A hardware store employee may cut it for you if you say you’re a teacher, or you can do that with your students. An 18-inch square is an ideal size to work with.

• Nails: I suggest 4D brand nails that are 1.5 inches long. You get about 350 per pound. • Hammer(s). • Needle-nose pliers. • Heavy-duty cotton thread or string in multiple colors (Here's an example.) • Pattern or ruler and marker to determine placement of nails.

Create Choose a pattern for students to print (a simple Google search using the terms “string art patterns circles” turns up good ones), or have them draw their own on paper, making dots where the nails should be on the perimeter of the image. Draw the nail marks at equal distance. More nails result in greater intricacy in the final artwork.

Learning Curves

These resources will enhance geometric art projects, whether they involve pencil and paper, string, or surveyor’s tape.

wikiHow provides an easy tutorial for drawing parabolic curves.

Hands-On Math Line Design from Ventura Educational Systems is an app that lets students create string patterns virtually.

String Art Fun offers many free patterns and a teacher’s section.

35 DIY String Art Patterns offers patterns for all ages.

Pinterest is always a gold mine, with hundreds of phenomenal ideas. Here’s my board with some favorites.

Transfer the pattern to the plywood. This can be done freehand, or with a service like Posterazor, which will enlarge a hand-made pattern. Print the design, tape it to the wood, and nail through the pattern. When finished, remove the paper.

Hammer in nails, holding them in place with needle-nose pliers to safeguard fingers.

Add string. There’s no wrong or right way to do this. One way to begin is to tie the string on a starting-point nail. Wrap the string around three times and then connect it to five to 10 other nails at random or in a pattern students devise.

Extend If you want to take it a step further, add words or additional shapes to the patterns. For more ideas, visit my Pinterest board. Have fun!

Burleson-Todd-contribHubbard Woods School resource center director Todd Burleson is the SLJ 2016 School Librarian of the Year.

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