The interdisciplinary Math & Arts program, with its underlying course Crystal Flowers in Halls of Mirrors, is introduced to the visitors of the Shanghai Future Lab exhibition.
Kirsi Peltonen: It is strange to go to an abandoned house to meet students via Zoom
How did you become the teacher of the Crystal Flowers in Halls of Mirrors course?
The course Crystal Flowers in Halls of Mirrors: Mathematics meets Art and Architecture started from nothing ten years ago. I teach mathematics at Aalto University's Department of Mathematics and Systems Analysis, and I did not know anyone from the arts or architecture side.
There was a lot of luck on the way. There was a demand for cross-disciplinary, new openings at Aalto University. At the time, Martti Raevaara was the Vice President for Education, and Aalto courses were established. There was nothing new about combining mathematics and art as such, but it had not been presented this systematically before. As a result, an entire minor subject based on this course was born.
I would not have been able to create the course alone. It was important to get people from different fields to commit to it.
What have been the highlights of the course?
My constant source of inspiration is that we have created new connections and a common voice between teachers and students in different fields. There has also been cooperation with museums, such as the Finnish Science Centre, Heureka, and Espoo Museum of Modern Art, EMMA. The museums have participated in the implementation of exhibitions in cooperation with the artists.
A special highlight, however, would be to get the exhibition up and running in these exceptional circumstances. The results of the workshops are abundant, so maybe no one can really prevent the exhibition either. It is now being arranged outside in Otaniemi.
How has daily life been during the corona pandemic in a teacher's perspective?
The Crystal Flowers in Halls of Mirrors course is based on interaction. Attempts have been made to build it, but creating genuine interaction and dialogue while working remotely is really challenging, sometimes even painful. It has required constant adjustments, and plans have had to be changed on the go. I am extremely grateful to the students who have steadfastly bared with us.
Teaching has mainly taken place online. Small workshops, where students have been divided into different rooms, have been organised in the Design Factory, while some students have participated through a video connection. Organising has been challenging.
The course is very laborious and requires attendance, as well as tolerance of uncertainty. It is handicraft! When everyone is sitting around the same table on a course, it is easier to understand what the other person is talking about. Remote communication causes a lot of misunderstandings, and it is difficult for a third person to join the discussion when the other two have already started.
All students have quite different situations and backgrounds. Nevertheless, they are incredibly adaptable and have the ability to consider different sides and deal with the situations open-mindedly. I believe both students and teachers have started to appreciate face-to-face teaching more. The lack of interaction is uncomfortable and leads to a strange melancholy feeling, and this cannot continue.
What has helped you cope in daily life during the times of Covid-19?
In terms of the epidemic, I feel that Finland has a privileged position. If I reflect on my own experience, I have been through more difficult moments in my career. It is all relative.
I am doing fine; I spend a lot of time outdoors with my husband. In the winter, it was really refreshing when there was a lot of snow, and we got access to ski tracks right from our own yard. I am also practising pilates remotely.
If the internet connection is poor, I drive to Otaniemi to give the lecture. It helps maintain the rhythm, but at the same time it is strange to go to an abandoned building and then “meet” students there via Zoom.
In the autumn, I was able to give one face-to-face lecture, and it was really empowering. It is part of a teacher's identity. However, it was strange that when, during the lecture, I wanted to go and guide the students in their work, I could not go near them.
There is nothing new in remote work as such, it is the everyday life of a researcher. But now the difficulties are starting to become clear. In normal conditions, certain things progress effortlessly through interaction and even occasional encounters, just because I am present in Otaniemi. It is often enough to mention something about a matter in passing. But now, even the smallest matters require calling or writing an e-mail. It takes time and feels a bit foolish.
What are your expectations for the future?
Conferences are an important part of the lives of researchers, and remotely I have participated in conferences, where I would not otherwise have gone. For example, there are now many genuinely cross-disciplinary origami conferences. That said, interaction is also a challenge for conferences, as the most important aspects take place outside the presentations.
The cross-disciplinary Bridges Conference, for instance, was supposed to be held at Aalto University in 2020, and it has been postponed twice. We are now planning it for 2022.
I received a grant from the Magnus Ehrnrooth foundation to produce a book that combines mathematics and art. In other words, we will put down in writing the results emerged in the course over ten years.
In 2016, I was at the University of Monterrey in Mexico and held a course with a local architect. In Shanghai, we organised a Crystal Flowers mini-exhibition and workshops for schoolchildren, teachers, and university students just before the corona. We made a great number of contacts, but then suddenly, everything came to a halt. I wish that in the future, I will be able to increase international cooperation and find wonderful new contacts.
The exhibition was inspired by the students' own experiences and relationship with the environment, and adapted to fit into the Cultural Centre.