The formation of seeds at the center of a blooming sunflower. The unfurling of a fiddlehead fern. The columns and curves of Roman or Greek architecture. Math, science and art observe the Golden ratio.

I love nature and I love art. But, to be honest, I’ve never taken well to math. Algebra threw me off track and I never was coaxed back on. I was good in English. I think my teachers might have thought being good at one thing was good enough.

Not all teachers believe such nonsense. There are even students who get excited about learning complex, yet critical concepts like the Golden ratio. I had the good fortune to meet two such enlightened individuals and we talked about Phi — the divine proportion.

“That’s the Fibonacci sequence,” said Matthew Gordon, “It’s a math thing. It follows into the golden spiral, the Golden ratio. The Fibonacci sequence is a math sequence that shows up everywhere … It shows up in nature. It shows up in art and design.”

It also shows up on his arm, in the form of a tattoo.

Matthew Gordon (left) passes on his love of math.

“That’s me being a nerd here,” Matthew admits, “But I love it. That’s why it’s on my skin. It’s applicable to so much and the math itself behind the Fibonacci sequence is one of the simplest. You only have to understand addition and you’ve got the whole thing.”

Check out the links under the Fibonacci heading of these online Educator Resources to learn more about the Golden Spiral and the Fibonacci sequence.

Matthew seemed to “get” the whole thing – the connection between mathematics, art and nature – very early in his life. He started blacksmithing and making pottery as a teenager. He went to art school. He earned a bachelor’s degree in welding and fabrication engineering technology.

Let’s think about this for a minute.

“I have so many interests and so many things I like,” he confessed. “I like art. I like math. I like ceramics. I like steel.”

Matthew – who can be seen enjoying his passions in a YouTube video — credits his parents for encouraging his youthful explorations.

“Any time we wanted to try anything … we never did it halfway. We did it to the extreme, and if we didn’t like it, we stopped. If we did like it, we’re still doing it.”

I had the pleasure of talking with Matthew and his mother Lauren Rhodes, who is an assistant professor of mathematics at Pennsylvania College of Technology, while producing Working Class: Dream and Do. It was clear the two share a mutual respect and a passion for creativity.

He wonders, “What will I create next?”

“She supported me in everything I wanted to do,” he said. “When I started blacksmithing, they wouldn’t allow a 13-year-old to go out to this camp for a week long. She camped with me and took a photography class. She did it two or three times because I was too young to go. When I started doing ceramics, I bought my own wheel but she helped me find the good one. She would drive me around. Boxes of pottery. Load the Subaru up, riding down the road like this. It’s heavy stuff. I went off to art school and she’s my mother so she never had anything bad to say about my artwork, even when it was terrible. She was there through it all.”

“I didn’t start understanding her love of math until it started being practical in my life.”

Yes, a blacksmith can be a potter too.

Mom’s support was a game-changer for her son. But it was pottery that finally changed Matthew’s view of her favorite subject, math.

“I didn’t start understanding her love of math until it started being practical in my life,” he said.

He recalled a high school calculus lesson that came to life because of his passion for pottery.

“We were getting to finding solid volumes or hollow volumes of things. I was doing the math for it and … I’m like, ‘This is pottery. That’s what it is. If you take a wheel and set it on its side, that’s what that looks like’ … I was getting high B’s, low A’s on tests. When I got to that test, I got 107. That I understood. This just started making sense. Then math became cool … It became applicable.”

There is a lesson to be learned from this. If we want students to hang in there long enough to really understand critical mathematical concepts, we have to connect the numbers to activities they understand and appreciate. Make it applicable — like Matthew says — and we make it “cool.”

I am so excited to share Matthew’s story with you. If you are a teacher or a parent — or you just care about inspiring children and young people — I hope you will be encouraged by the success achieved by this young man who discovered the connection between academics and pursuing his dreams.

The cap and the degree fit an artist and scholar.

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