Embracing the surface
Camden — “Enjoyable, beautiful and unique” — these are the words mathematician Eva Szillery uses to describe modular origami, but they also can be applied to the offerings of the second annual Midcoast Mini Maker Faire, hosted by Camden Public Library Saturday, Sept. 6.
The Mini Maker Faire will run from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Camden Amphitheatre and at the library; admission is a $2 donation, $5 for families. The motto “Make, create, recycle, build, think, play, and be inspired by celebrating arts, crafts, engineering, food, music, science and technology!” will be realized by some 20 exhibitors offering family-friendly presentations; for information about all the offerings, visit midcoastmakerfaire.com or check out its Facebook page.
One of the presenters is Szillery, a native of Hungary who earned her Ph.D. in mathematics at the prestigious Eotvos Lorand University, but these days is based in the Bangor/Orono area. From there, she travels around the state, sharing her passion for using small, inexpensive pieces of paper to create beautifully complex models … and change people’s minds about mathematics.
“When you start to teach mathematics, you find people who reject it … and every teacher wants to find the way; we think, there has to be way for everyone, because math is so fundamental! We want to get to the heart of people who reject it,” she said.
Szillery began her search by looking at the things that first pulled her into mathematics, such as chess. It was not until she came to this country that she began learning about origami, the ancient Japanese art of paper folding. It is an art the scientific and manufacturing communities are much engaged with these days, as it offers ingenious ways to solve practical problems like folding airbags, bending sheet metal, inserting medical instruments into the body and transporting machinery into space.
Modular, or unit, origami, the branch Szillery practices and preaches, is the basis of computational geometry.
“You fold a piece of paper, then you fold many more, you fold them all identically and you assemble them into something. It’s a way to make something very complicated,” said Szillery, who promises to show Faire-goers how to begin such a process in five minutes.
The way to the heart of math-resistant folk may not be through the stomach, but the doughnut plays a part nonetheless. Szillery will bring along one of her larger models, a torus the size of a pickup truck tire.
“A torus looks like a doughnut; it has a hole in the middle and is one surface. It was made with 555 little squares of paper. You would not believe what you learn about surface, how it all comes together,” she said.
In 2009, Szillery made an even bigger model, commissioned by Lewiston’s Little Theatre to create a red hawk with a 4-foot wingspan for the theater’s production of “Animals Out of Paper." The hawk was the central prop, but she had to make many models for the show, some of which she had to come up with her own folding designs for. It’s not the only place her teaching method has been displayed as art; Szillery’s origami models also have been displayed in libraries and education centers.
But it is as a teaching tool that Szillery has found modular origami most compelling. As founder of the Maine Junior Engineering Technical Society (MJETS) and the Maine Mathematics Science and Engineering Talent Search (MMSETS), she shares the approach with children, starting at around third grade. And at the United Technology Center in Bangor and the University of Maine’s continuing education program, she works with adults — and not just math teachers.
“They can earn CEU credit, but nurses and retired professional engineers have taken it, just to enjoy themselves. Many times, teachers are coming. They don’t need the credit but it’s always a good thing to collect. And it’s enjoyable, beautiful and unique,” she said.
Spatial reasoning and geometry are disciplines every human needs, and modular origami is a powerful way to sharpen these skills. Not that it is easy. Szillery said when she teaches or leads a workshop, she literally rolls up her sleeves.
“I don’t dress up like an instructor, because it’s really hard work — for me and for everyone,” she said.
But that hard work pays off. Szillery said people are too quick to tell children they can pursue things “as long as they enjoy it” and then give up and move onto something else. She said what they learn from modular origami goes deeper than surface theory … that actually putting their hands to the task has real value.
“You cannot work so intensely with your hands and your mind and not have it influence you. They learn the thrill of persistence,” she said.
Adults have that experience as well, especially those who are breaking through long-held resistance to mathematics. Szillery said most people tell her they parted from math when the curriculum hit fractions. But when they take one of her classes, “they have to complete the project to get credit, so they do it!”
The process of doing it is what opens the doer “to let math into their lives,” said Szillery. And the process lets you know when it has gone awry.
“When you try to do an assignment in modular geometry and make a mistake, you realize it is not what’s it’s suppose to be … maybe it’s the shape of a sweet potato! So you have to sort out what is wrong,” she said.
That sorting out takes close observation, counting the edges, counting the vertices, to find where the assembly took a wrong turn.
“One can read a surface exactly the way one would read text,” Szillery said.
When a complex model is finally complete, its beauty is indeed rewarding, but more frosting than cake. The real prize, said Szillery, is a wonderful sense of accomplishment.
“And I take tremendous joy in that! To me, it goes across everything,” said Szillery.
In addition to paper, Szillery and her students use paper plates and playing cards — “we are cheap!” — to create models, many of which are displayed on the MMSETS Facebook page, where she regular posts puzzles and discussion around the models. Sometimes, they will create a model and then do the same assembly in reverse, just to see what shape will arise.
“This is why I say it is like music. Everyone uses the same notes, but look what Mendelssohn can do,” she said, adding, “Look at what he did when he was just 12!”
Szillery will be back on the Midcoast a few days after the Midcoast Mini Maker Faire, instructing a Tuesday afternoon workshop for children age 6 to 9 Sept. 9 through Dec. 16 at The Playroom in Warren. For more information about the session, organized jointly by MMSETS and MJETS, contact Szillery at firstname.lastname@example.org; or Lux Butcher at email@example.com and 273-3007.