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Creating an Environmental Impact

Director of Institute For Figuring, Margaret Wertheim combines science and art to educate community.
Saving the world’s underwater ecosystems is too large a project for any individual to tackle alone. Director of the Institute For Figuring Margaret Wertheim knows this all too well, so she’s working to raise environmental awareness — especially among students — through the Crochet Coral Reef project.

As part of Steward’s 2015-16 Visiting Innovator series, Ms. Wertheim presented “The Intersection of Nature, Technology, Arts, and Math: Contributing to the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef” in the Bryan Innovation Lab on February 16.

“Coral reefs all over the world are being destroyed,” she said. “It’s only by working together that we can solve this problem. We see the project as a way of helping people to understand that the environment is impacted by the sum total of all of our actions.”

Founded in 2005 by Ms. Wertheim and her twin sister Christine, the project encourages communities around the world to build large-scale sculptural installations of coral reefs using crochet techniques. Participants engage in science education by learning about the characteristics and purpose of coral reefs. Mathematics comes into play because the methods used to crochet representations of organisms like corals, kelps, and nudibranchs involve the principles of hyperbolic geometry. The act of creating the various parts of the installation, then gathering it all together to display, reflects an understanding of art and handicraft.

“The final project always ends up being a beautiful work of art, one that is rooted equally in several important educational disciplines,” Ms. Wertheim said.

So far, the project has reached 12 countries and 35 cities, according to Ms. Wertheim. Installations have been exhibited in art and science museums worldwide, including the Hayward Gallery in London and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

As a participant in the IFF’s ‘Satellite’ program, Steward School is creating its own, local School Reef. During her visit, Ms. Wertheim met with students and community members who had been crocheting in anticipation of her arrival. She led hands-on sessions and thoughtful discussions with students on campus throughout the day. The activities culminated in a Fiber Arts and Science Fair where students learned crochet techniques, wove with different types of wool, created coral reef shapes with Play-Doh, built three-dimensional structures with Straws and Connectors, and more.

“Students can do what we can all do as human beings — become aware of our own daily practices,” Ms. Wertheim said. “We are all capable of using less than we currently do, and I think every one of us can do something to contribute to the betterment of the planet.”
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