Saturday, October 3, 2015

Sewing and Spatial Rotation

Hey there! Remember me? This is Sophia, the embedded sewer/ cosplayer. It's good to be back in the blogosphere! Several months have passed since I last wrote an update here, but I've been busy with Re-Crafting that whole time! Over the next few weeks, I'll report on what I've been up to.

I haven't shared here yet the most complex costume I've made to date, the one of which I'm still most proud. I made it at the end of the spring semester, partly as a final project for an art class, but mostly just because I really wanted to be able to dress up as Itachi, my favorite character from the anime and manga series Naruto. I mean, just look at this menacing awesomeness!

Last weekend at the Fablearn conference in Stanford, I presented on my experiences so far with the Re-Crafting Math project. Perhaps the most educationally compelling aspect of my cosplay-making exploits is the way I've found that sewing forces you to think hard about visualizing rotation and 2D-to-3D transformation. Fabric starts out two-dimensional and flat, and you need to envision what it will look like when worn by a three-dimensional person in order to understand what shapes to cut out and how to put them together. If you're using a pattern, those are usually drawn on flat pieces of paper, and also require mental transfer from 2D to 3D. On top of that, sewing usually requires you to sew inside-out, so your stitches are on the wrong side of the fabric and won't be visible from the right side. Making sense of that requires even more spatial visualization so you can keep track of what's inside-out and how it will look when you turn it right-side out.

Since I've never been good at spatial visualization, this became particularly confusing for me when sewing the sleeves onto Itachi's cloak. I had already sewn the sleeves into tubes and the body of the cloak, so none of these pieces was flat anymore. It was very difficult to then figure out how to put them together so the right sides of both pieces were facing each other and so the stitches at the shoulders wouldn't show. I ended up pinning one sleeve on inside-out from the way it was supposed to be, and not until I turned it right-side out and actually tried it on (that is, not until I physically embodied the spatial rotation) did I realize that it was backwards.

So, sewing clearly gives people practice with these skills. This is important because sewing is stereotypically considered a woman's craft in our culture, and women are also assumed, in general, to not be as good at spatial rotation skills as men are. This spatial stereotype remains despite the fact that a 2008 study suggested that gender differences in spatial rotation test scores were entirely based on stereotype threat.

What if giving girls more practice with sewing helped to improve their spatial skills and to close this gap? (I bet boys would benefit from learning to sew too!) What if spatial rotation tests were based on, for instance, sewing patterns rather than on the pictures of blocks that they normally entail? Since some engineering programs require high scores on spatial rotation tests in order to admit you, finding ways to close the spatial gap has important implications for gender equity in STEM. We hope to start confronting these issues head-on in our Re-Crafting work!

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