Former SLC Professor Makes Mathematical Knitted Crafts

These are samples of Dr. Belcastro's mathematical knitting. Möbius bands, which act as both teaching tools and fashion accessories.  Photo courtesy Dr. Sarah-Marie Belcastro

These are samples of Dr. Belcastro's mathematical knitting. Möbius bands, which act as both teaching tools and fashion accessories. Photo courtesy Dr. Sarah-Marie Belcastro

Former professor of Mathematics, Dr. Sarah-Marie Belcastro, recently had an article selected by the Princeton University Press for their annual series “The Best Writing on Mathematics” for this year. The article, “Adventures in Mathematical Knitting,” was originally published by the bimonthly science and technology magazine, American Scientist. In her article, Dr. Belcastro explains how she has used her knitting techniques to create mathematical surfaces and shapes such as Möbius bands and Klein bottles.

Mathematical objects like Klein bottles can be hard to visualize due to the fact they are four-dimensional objects.

“Conceptually it’s simple, you just have four axes instead of three” said Dr. Belcastro as she was explaining the concept of four-dimensional objects. “Trying to visualize it is another thing entirely.”

Klein bottles and Möbius bands are non-orientable surfaces, meaning that the two sides of the objects “flow into each other,” as Dr. Belcastro put it. “You have to make it so that the objects have neither a front nor back,”she added.

The finished objects make good teaching aids due to their flexibility, and they can be physically manipulated unlike their computer-generated counterparts. Some knitted objects can even be worn as scarves, bracelets, and other types of fashion accessories.

The idea of knitting such complex shapes came to Dr. Belcastro quite naturally while she was in graduate school. She took two things that she was passionate about, knitting and mathematics, and was able to use her craft to bring such shapes into reality.

“I was sitting in a math class and thinking ‘I wish I could feel one of these things,’” said Dr. Belcastro recounting how she first thought of the concept. “I happened to be knitting, and maybe I can knit one and I thought about how to do it.”

Dr. Belcastro admitted in her article that she was not the first person to come up with the idea of using knitting as a tool to make mathematical objects. She cited the earliest example of knitted mathematical surfaces made by Scottish chemistry professor Alexander Crum Brown in her article.

When asked if she was excited about her article being selected for the publication, she admitted that she was not particularly excited about it because in fact this was not the first time her work was selected for “The Best Writing on Mathematics.” Another article she wrote, “Dancing Mathematics and the Mathematics of Dancing,” was featured in the 2012 edition of the Princeton publication as well.

Dr. Belcastro collaborated with Dr. Karl Schaffer, a math professor and dance choreographer at De Anza College, on the article, which was published by the magazine, Math Horizons, in February 2011. The article examines the relationship between mathematics and dance by exploring how mathematical principles like symmetry, geometry and topology play a role in dance choreography.

Dr. Belcastro dances and choreographs herself. In fact, almost every year she and Dr. Schaffer meet at the annual mathematics conference, Joint Mathematics Meetings, and discuss putting math in their choreography. They decided to put together a demonstration for the entire conference about the mathematics of dance. They also incorporated demonstrations about how dance can be used to demonstrate mathematical theorems and principles.

“We did so much work to create this, and we had made a script for ourselves and we thought maybe we should turn this into an article,” said Dr. Belcastro.

These days, Dr. Belcastro is still keeping herself busy. She is currently a Research Associate at Smith College, the Director of MathILY (a residential summer program for high school students who excel at math) and an instructor at the Art of Problem Solving school. She does hope to have another opportunity to teach at SLC again if given the chance. 

by Hugh Thornhill '15
Staff Writer and Contributing Layout Editor


SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.

Smoking ban update: policy will be implemented gradually

Reminders have been distributed to remind smokers that the smoking ban will go into effect August of next year. These stickers are on all smoking poles around campus. Photo by Hugh Thornhill '14.

Reminders have been distributed to remind smokers that the smoking ban will go into effect August of next year. These stickers are on all smoking poles around campus. Photo by Hugh Thornhill '14.

It was back in February when President of the College Karen Lawrence sent the student body an email about the College’s decision to go smoke-free. It came as a shock to many, who were expecting a major revision of the current policy but not a complete ban of smoking on campus.

Most students who were around in 2012 remember the Smoke Policy Taskforce who began in April 2012, a ten month-long process consisting of reviewing the current policies and New York State regulations regarding smoking on college campuses, Town Hall Meetings, a survey sent out to the community asking for their input, and reviewed reports from Security and Student Affairs on the problems regarding the current smoking policy on campus. Comprised of administrators, students, and faculty, many of whom were current or former smokers, they hoped to address these concerns.

Many students at the time assumed that the school was possibly going to go with the option of setting up designated smoking areas around campus. By the end of the investigation in February 2013, the taskforce voted on one of two options to recommend to Karen Lawrence and the rest of the school administration: either to create designated smoking areas or ban smoking from the campus completely. The majority voted for the ban, and President Lawrence formally accepted the ban at the end of the 2012-2013 school year.

The main reasons for this ban, according to the final recommendation from the taskforce, was to eliminate second-hand smoke and reduce the amount of cigarette butts scattered throughout campus. Director of Health Services and a member of the taskforce, Mary Hartnett, said that although smoking is banned, being in possession of tobacco products and using tobacco products that don’t require smoking, such as chewing tobacco, are not prohibited under the new policy. She did, however, mention that the use of electronic cigarettes (E-cigarettes) are banned under the new policy, stating that there is some evidence that the vapor given off of by E-cigarettes is harmful.

Upon the final decision to go smoke-free, the school began to set up a Smoke Free Policy Implementation Committee to educate and gradually prepare the community for the change, which could be jarring to the community otherwise. Hartnett is heading the committee and has been hard at work since March of this year managing it. The committee has since been divided into four smaller subcommittees, which include Policy Writing, Smoking Cessation, Campus Education, and Communication and Marketing. Each subcommittee has its own responsibility to make the transition to a smoke-free campus as smooth as possible.

One of the ways the Implementation Committee has been educating the campus about the new policy is by hosting focus group meetings for students, faculty and staff. A focus group for the students was held on Oct.15, in which students were given the opportunity to voice their opinions on how to better educate the community. A similar focus group was offered for faculty earlier this month. Besides education, the Policy Writing subcommittee is currently looking into refining the policy so that it is fair to everyone on campus.

“What we’re looking at is a potential graduated fine for first-time, second-time, and third-time offenders,” said Dean of Student Affairs, Paige Crandall. “And this would apply for everyone, including students, faculty, and staff.”

Though the school has been claiming that the new policy will be beneficial for the entire community, there have been students in opposition. One concern brought up by Senior Class President Emily Rogers (’15) was that there was a lack of communication between the taskforce and the student body concerning whether or not a ban was even being seriously considered.

“While I do not believe in some kind of ‘tyranny of the majority’, what I will say is that it is rather disconcerting that it was not communicated to the students that a ban was even in the picture. [I am] saying this as someone who was on Senate the year this was discussed,” Rogers said.

Another concern was whether the policy was too excessive. Many students still believe that the designated smoking areas are a better alternative than an outright ban. “We’re going after an acorn with a sledgehammer,” said Will Duffield (’15) in regards to smoking-related litter being one of the justifications for the ban. “It’s a supremely disproportionate response to ban smoking across campus.”

In addition, there is a concern of how effective the policy will be and whether students will adhere to it. According to the survey sent out to the SLC community by the taskforce, while 40 percent of students who responded said that they would abide by the policy, 49 percent said that they would find a way to use tobacco anyway.

Some students have reacted to the new policy with protest. Several students coordinated a “Smoke-In” on Oct. 13 at the Yoko Ono structure. Organized by students Adriana Lucci (’15) and Catherine Readick (’15), the event was meant to highlight the students’ disapproval of the new policy. On the Smoke-In Facebook event page, it was stated: “Of course smoking is an unhealthy activity. But to ban it all together, completely opposing compromise is not right. I believe that the ban that is going to be passed was not properly shared with the community of Sarah Lawrence.” The organizers added that people who participated did not have to be smokers, and would be very welcome to stand with the protest. Lucci stated that they intend to hold more protests of this nature in the near future.

Though there are a number of students on campus who are still opposed to this new policy, Hartnett emphasized that it was in fact a number of students and the Committee on Student Life who originally brought up the issue. She believes that there are a number of students, particularly those who were not on campus when the task force was conducting its investigation, who are unaware of the history of the decision. “This was driven by students and the Committee of Student Life; this was not just decided by the President,” said Hartnett.

According to Crandall, this issue has come up again and again in the past, but it wasn’t until recently that the school went to such lengths to address the concerns. “Since I’ve been here, which has been since 2010, I was told that there were going to be two things that will come on the agenda every year. And that was the ban on the blood drive and smoking issues,” said Crandall.

There has been some discussion in the Student Senate about the new policy as well. Duffield, a senator, suggested a referendum to find an accurate opinion from the students, faculty, and staff about whether they believe the policy will work.

However, regardless of the opposition, members of the Implementation Committee emphasize that the policy has been decided and is not going to change. They are now focusing on getting feedback on how to best educate the community and ease implementation.

“When Karen sent out the email, my name was on it for people who could work with us on the policy. I have opened up my subcommittee meetings for anyone who wants to join,” said Hartnett. “I am reaching out to the community for their input as we go through the transition to the new policy, so that we may hear everybody’s ideas about education, about implementation, about sanctions, and about compliance.”

by Hugh Thornhill '14
Staff Writer and Contributing Layout Editor

Office of Admissions includes SAT/ACT test scores on applications

The admissions wing of Westlands, where a prospecive student fills out a form in the newly renovated reception area. Photo by Hugh Thornhill ‘15.

The admissions wing of Westlands, where a prospecive student fills out a form in the newly renovated reception area. Photo by Hugh Thornhill ‘15.

Every Sarah Lawrence student had to go through the admissions process at some point. It was lengthy, at times tedious, but a time-honored method to decide who would be a good fit for our school. The admission process, for the most part, has remained the same in the past several years. 

Kevin McKenna, Dean of Enrollment, described how the admissions department looks at prospective students, “The Holistic process, in which we really try to look beyond the numbers to learn as much about the applicant as possible, has long been the basic and fundamental guiding premise to SLC’s admissions,” he said.

As with most colleges and universities, the high school transcript and essays the applicants provide are the most important components to the admission process here at SLC. Most recently, major change was instituted in this process in the fall of 2013. A new option for prospective students to submit their SAT and ACT test results appeared as part of the application process.

In the past, following with the college’s theme of looking beyond numbers to identify a student’s academic prowess, the college did not even look at test scores. “We did not look at standardized testing,” McKenna said, “In fact we went out very publicly and said ‘we don’t think that these are accurate predictors of success in college.’”

At one point, as McKenna describes it, several students came forward and said that while they tended to agree on this philosophy of looking beyond numbers, they felt that standardized tests could be an indicator for how well an applicant would fair at the college. The students felt that the school shouldn’t exclude prospective students who wanted to submit their high test scores in order to boost their chances of being accepted by the college.

Another aspect that constantly changes at the college is the amount of high schools that Admissions counselors visit. SLC has increased the number of schools it has visited to recruit students by several hundred in the past four years, according to the Admissions Department. While the administration has always focused on visiting schools in New York and California (the two states where that constitute the highest percentages of the student body), SLC has been making an effort to expand these visits to other states that they have been unable to visit in the past. Internationally, the school continues to visit countries including India, China, United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates, and Japan, among others. 

Though SLC looking into finding more applicants to apply to the college, the body of students accepted to Sarah Lawrence is one thing that has remained fairly consistent over the years. The school has always been mainly composed of female students. This year there have been a total of 358 new undergraduate students (excluding transfer students) with 74% of them being female and a total of 25% of them being male. 12.6% of them are international students, and 27.6% are students who identify as students of color (excluding international students). According to Director of Admission and Coordinator of Multicultural Recruitment Jennifer Gayles, the acceptance rate this year was around 50%, coming down from 62% last year.     

Beyond changes in the admissions process, there has also been a change in how the admissions space in Westlands looks. When people enter the waiting room, a large ornate waiting area that is fully refurnished and well lit greets them.

“We have gone from a very little space in which to welcome prospective students to having one of the best admissions spaces in the country,” said McKenna. “So I hope it makes families feel more at home when they visit.”

Despite some changes to the office and what material Admissions uses to assess prospective students, they will continue to look for the same types of applicants it always has. McKenna says that Admissions will always look for students who are passionate about their interests, but are “willing to explore new ideas and take creative approaches to scholarship, art, and performance.” For the most part, the majority of incoming students reflect these standards.

It will be interesting to see how the school continues to evolve, and how the admissions process evolves with it to adapt to new changes. For now, Admissions will continue to sift through the wide pool of applicants that they receive each year, and choose students that represent Sarah Lawrence values.

by Hugh Thornhill '15

SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.