A STEAM Bridge Across the Middle Passage

STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) is a play on the popular STEM movement that has swept through U.S. education, with a focus on including the arts as essential to a complete education. My research is STEAM + C (for culture) but rather than create yet another acronym my argument is that culture and vernacular can be infused across all of these disciplines. Like the ancient Egyptian polymath Imhotep many artists, scholars and writers place a techno-cultural lens on STEAM that can be used to foster interest and motivation in both engaged and disengaged learners.

John Biggers. "Nubia, the Origins of Business and Finance," 1999. Courtesy Olive Theisen.

John Biggers. “Nubia, the Origins of Business and Finance,” 1999. Courtesy Olive Theisen.


The National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences managed the first of two steps in the creation of the Next Generation Science Standards by developing the Framework for K-12 Science Educationwhich draws on current scientific research—including a view of science as “both a body of knowledge and an evidence-based, model and theory building enterprise that continually extends, refines, and revises knowledge.” Here, I argue that this framework and its crosscutting concepts can be used to teach students through the arts.  Two concepts are fundamental:

  • Patterns. Observed patterns of forms and events guide organization and classification, and they prompt questions about relationships and the factors that influence them.
  • Scale, proportion, and quantity concerns the sizes of that and the mathematical relationships among disparate elements.
John Biggers . "Web of Life," 1958. Courtesy Brooklyn Museum. © Artist's estate.

John Biggers . “Web of Life,” 1958. Courtesy Brooklyn Museum. © Artist’s estate.

The Web of Life a large mural by artist John Biggers is described as displaying “the interdependence of living organisms in the balance of nature, and the relationship of all organisms to one another through the long line of evolutionary descent.” Biggers centered the image on an essential earth mother, from whom creation expands in a delicately described network of life-forms and sequential seasonal settings. In science, patterns are discernible in the symmetry of flowers and plants, the cycling of the seasons, and the repeated base pairs of DNA. Noticing patterns is often a first step to organizing and asking scientific questions about why and how patterns occur. Using artwork like Web of Life can prompt learners to ask new questions about their world.


One of my required texts as an undergraduate art student was Computer graphics for designers & artists by Isaac Victor Kerlow (and taught by the same guy). We spent time on fractals which is effective for creating random and irregular shapes that resemble shapes found in nature. Like Biggers’s Web of Life and other artworks we can see how computer-generated fractals can simulate natural looking forms in paintings or designs because they allow for randomness, recursion, and accidents of shape.

Fractal image generated by Electric Sheep.

Fractal image generated by Electric Sheep.

Left: From African Fractals: modern computing and indigenous design (Eglash); Right: Fibonacci word fractal by Samuel Monnier

Left: From African fractal village (Eglash); Right: Fibonacci word fractal by Samuel Monnier.

The geometric primitives and particle systems in a virtual environment like Second Life can be used to simulate or generate fractal patterns and other scientific and mathematical phenomena. For example, check out Tyrehl Byk’s The Containment:


Repeating patterns in nature, or events that occur together with regularity, are clues that engineers can use to start exploring causal, or cause-and-effect, relationships. For example, students might investigate how to produce cause-and-effect mechanisms in the motion of a single object, a dancer, specific chemical reactions, soundscapes, etc. Design is a central practice of engineering and the focus of the vast majority of K-12 engineering curricula. Engineers not only design new technologies, but they often fabricate, operate, inspect, and maintain them.

Kelvin Doe. D.I.Y. engineer from Sierra Leone.

Kelvin Doe. D.I.Y. engineer from Sierra Leone.

Many artists’ works display emic (local, indigenous) ideas for the design of structures and systems. Eglash writes,

The process of simulation (at our end, as designers of digital systems) is itself an opportunity to help support this illumination of the knowledge-based aspects of these systems of thought. Indeed we should be making an effort to develop the simulations in ways that help children see how the indigenous artisans knowledge systems work, an emic  attempt to translate rather than an etic attempt to impose alien digital conceptions.

Maker Faire Africa 2012.

Maker Faire Africa 2012.


When creating art students need to be able to understand the development toward abstraction, from full representation to complete non-objectivity. Organic harmony is achieved in a body of work by using similar elements throughout the work. Harmony gives an uncomplicated look to a piece of artwork or sculpture. John Biggers and other artists’ use of fractals, African American designs (ex. quilts), and African patterns is one way to create harmony in an artwork. Organic harmony provides a direct link to STEM –i.e. the use of visual elements such as shapes as both tools of geometric exploration and symbolic expression.

Sanford preparing a piece for display and sale, August 28, 2012.

Sanford preparing a piece for display and sale, August 28, 2012.

In The Cartographer’s Conundrum, a large installation recently on view at Mass MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art), artist Sanford Biggers maps artistic, cultural and spiritual practices, other disciplines and fields such as Afrofuturism, music, and sacred geometry. The Quilting Party, an early 1980s mural by the late artist John Biggers (possibly related to Sanford), informs The Cartographer’s Conundrum and demonstrates the elder Biggers’ personal aesthetic and complex symbology that imparts layered meanings both as immediately recognizable symbols of daily life in the American south and spiritual connections to African heritage. Sanford Biggers’ installation functions as an extension of – or dialogue with – the work of John Biggers. The Quilting Party was also on display at Mass MoCA and it draws from a moment in 1957, when John Biggers visited Ghana and took a leap of creative faith. Sanford says,

He became very influenced by the textile work he finds there, the geometric patterns in the cloth, and this notion of sacred geometry that is borrowed from Islam, but has migrated westerly through Africa,” Biggers said. “When he returned to painting in the U.S., his figurative paintings had all the instances of geometric abstraction and fractally dividing up the space, so it created an optical illusion as well.

John Biggers. “The Quilting Party” (1980-81). Image courtesy the artist and Mass MoCA.

John Biggers. “The Quilting Party” (1980-81). Image courtesy the artist and Mass MoCA.

Aaron Douglas. Study for "Aspects of Negro Life: An Idyll of the Deep South" (1934).

Aaron Douglas. Study for “Aspects of Negro Life: An Idyll of the Deep South” (1934).


Fractal geometry is also one of the mathematical elements cited by ethnomathematician Ron Eglash (my advisor) in the work of late artist John Biggers. Ron writes,

The art of John Biggers is often interpreted in terms of its celebration of African traditions and it ecological themes such as the “web of life” or as an exemplar of richly iconographic painting. But the striking geometric forms used by Biggers both cross and exceed their categories. While helping him to visualize the fecundity of his African heritage, geometry’s universal truths, and cold precision stand in stark contrast to our expectations of cultural specificity and organic roots. Much of the genius in Biggers late work depends on his ability to smoothly blend these conceptual opposites.

Ron’s essay,  A Geometrical Bridge Across the Middle Passage: Mathematics in the Art of John Biggers (2004), offers a different approach to the analysis of artwork as a cultural artifact, i.e. based on John Biggers’ use of sacred geometry and fractals. Mathematics often appears in art with pyramids, music, five regular polyhedra (Platonic solids), and fractals. Culturally situated design (as creative production) is also present in Sanford Biggers’s work as he extracts certain aspects, translates and remixes them to address contemporary issues.

Cornrow Curves CSDT developed by Ron Eglash and RPI.

Cornrow Curves CSDT developed by Ron Eglash and RPI. Courtesy Ron Eglash.

Eglash also cites a quote in his 2006 essay by John Biggers that circles back to the crosscurrent concepts from the Next Generation Science Standards:

And one day I realized after I had studied sacred geometry, I realized that proportions. The proportions were simply exquisite. The proportions gave you a vibration.

Vibration, organic harmony, pattern, rhythm are also crosscutting concepts that support the creative, cultural and innovative practices of artists of the African diaspora that are descended from the historic movement of peoples from Africa — predominantly to the Americas, Europe, and other areas around the globe. I have documented the work of professional artists who explore STEM concepts in their work. For example, Sanford Biggers, a former graffiti artist and break dancer from Los Angeles, merges culture, creativity, and innovation in his work. Sanford repurposes slave quilts and re-imagines the cultural and historical artifacts of the past using materials of the present. Relevant aspects include star charts (maps) that are divided by astronomers into grids, then used to identify and locate stars, constellations and galaxies. Many of these quilt designs are based on the polar and Cartesian coordinate systems in mathematics, for instance, the use of half-square (equilateral) triangles.

Other Connections

Not just limited to STEAM, I am looking at other ways to situate culturally situated, or culturally responsive teaching and learning. This includes black speculative fiction (cyberpunk, steampunk, Afrofuturism, steamfunk), dance/performance, gaming, sound, and film/video/animation.

John Jennings. "SANKOFANATOR ZOX-1017," 2012. Courtesy the artist.

John Jennings. “SANKOFANATOR ZOX-1017,” 2012. Courtesy the artist.

Sanford Biggers, in collaboration with David Ellis. "Mandala of the B-Bodhisattva II," 2010. Photo: George Torode

Sanford Biggers, in collaboration with David Ellis. “Mandala of the B-Bodhisattva II,” 2010.
Photo: George Torode.

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