How Can We Parse Patterns?

by Debra Henning, M.A.

In Part One of Putting Patterns to Work, I shared some insights about the fundamental and ubiquitous role that patterns play in our thinking. Informed by the work of Michelle and Robert Root Bernstein, Donn L. Marrin, and Hunter Whitney, Part I reinforces the rationale behind patterns as a crosscutting concept in the Next Generation Science Standards. In Part Two, I ask, How can we parse pattern knowledge? In other words, how can we, as teachers and guides, organize pattern knowledge in ways that will help students develop the ability to see and create patterns of meaningful information in all domains?

One solution comes from Donn L. Marrin, the interesting hydro chemist mentioned earlier, who proposes a “common language based on spatial and temporal patterns.” Marrin’s space/time framework encompasses the language of art – the patterns of line, shape, form, and texture that exist in space, as well as the language of design – the temporal patterns of movement, emphasis, and rhythm that can describe music and dance, as well as art and design. The conceptual framework enables us to parse the pattern languages of art and design and much more. In studies as far flung as those of avian migration, ocean chemistry, fractals, and Scottish tartans, spatial and temporal patterns bring meaning to forms and events that exist “on scales ranging from the atomic to the cosmic.”(1)

At the most basic level, forms and events occur as patterns in space and time. Because this is true for the created forms and events that exist as patterns in the arts and literature as well as for those that occur as patterns in the natural world, patterns serve as productive tools for the cross-fertilization of disciplines.

Creating awareness on the part of students of spatial and temporal patterns as a powerful conceptual framework is a critical first step. If students can see beyond surface representations, for example, of Kente cloth, the magnificent cloverleaf interchanges of our super highways, and the zebra’s stripes, all as examples of spatial and temporal patterning, they will likely have a better understanding of the expressions, or visualizations of patterns that populate their textbooks and popular media. To paraphrase Hunter Winter Whitney, author of “It’s About Time,” visualizations provide a kind of lens on spatial and temporal data that can reveal patterns, prompt questions, and tell stories.(2)

“Well, the stripes are easy. But what about the horse part?”Alan Turing on the zebra, quoted by Francis Crick (1972)

Spatial Patterns

Spatial patterns in scientific data can be expressed in distributions and geometries.(3) In geography, spatial patterns of population density as seen, for example, in the Lights at Night world map reveal relationships between the distribution of population and Earth’s features, such as rivers and oceans. Examples of spatial patterns expressed in terms of geometries are found in airports where “big geometric patterns impose their will on lesser systems – aircraft turning circles determine the layout of taxing gates which in turn figure the pacing of gate piers, which then position and help give size to terminal buildings.”(4)

In the visual arts, where spatial patterns predominate, “Pattern is often used symbolically to represent many things: people, beliefs, the natural world, history, and tradition.”(5) Ghanaian Kente cloth and Scottish tartans , both used to establish clan and national identity and both originally dependent upon dyes from regional plants, are just two examples of how symbolic meanings, expressed in spatial patterns of colors and line are handed down from one generation to the next, establishing historical traditions and cultural practices.

Temporal Patterns

Our understanding of time and temporal patterns, as of space and spatial patterns, is dependent on the lens we use, and data visualizations can provide a set of lenses for viewing time, as well as space, from different perspectives.(6) Since the appearance of William Playfair’s line graph in the late 1700’s, “countless charts and visualizations represent time in essentially the same manner: a horizontal line—the “x” axis, divided by temporal units that progress from left to right. The vertical “y” axis has quantitative measures. ”(7)

Temporal patterns in scientific data can also be expressed in terms of frequencies and cycles. As “the unitary impression produced by a succession of stimuli,” temporal patterns can be understood using the language of music. The melody consisting of tone and rhythm can be considered as pattern similar to the case of spatial phenomena.(7) At a young age, science students are introduced to the concept of frequency through the study of sound, often graphically represented as sine waves. In spectrograms, the temporal patterns of sound waves, including frequency and pitch, are made visible, allowing us to “see,” for example, the song of the northern cardinal or the humpback whale.

From astronomy to geology, to biology and physics, temporal patterns expressed in cycles are the stuff of science curricula. Cycles in the natural world range in length from sound frequencies fractions of a second in duration to “the gravest rhythm” of Comet Haley, its cycle of about 75-years making it the only comet visible to the human eye twice in a life time. Planetary cycles, accompanied by daily, seasonal, and annual changes in light intensity and temperature, are mirrored by living animals in their natural habitats. The environmentally-related periods of animal spawning, loco-motor activity, breeding, and migration patterns provide visible evidence of the complex interactions between temporal patterns of behavior and planetary cycles.(8)

Communicating Scientific Concepts through Art

Spatial and temporal patterns that cross the boundaries of science, art, music, and design give individuals trained in the arts and sciences tools for communicating new perceptions of the natural and designed worlds. Working as a consultant to artists and designers, Donn Marrin provides eye-opening examples of artists who are using their knowledge of spatial and temporal patterns to create new perceptions of the environment. He calls attention to:

Artist Pamela Longobardi…. [whose] Drifters Project focuses on global scale patterns created by the oceanic transport of plastics and on smaller scale patterns of plastic wastes that are distributed along the world’s beaches. One facet of her art involves the use of selected plastic wastes to produce installations and exhibits on an even smaller scale that symbolically focus the viewer’s attention on the destructive usage and disposal of plastics.

Artist Maria Haseltine[who] has created artificial reefs and other underwater habitats based on the geometry, patterning, and functionality of natural reefs….Particularly interesting is her use of nature’s microscopic structures and patterns , to create macroscopic designs (e.g., incorporating the patterns of fish gills in building artificial habitat structures for oysters).(9)

And to the artist and scientists at NASA’s Applied Science Program whose displays of satellite images of Earth are captured in their recent e-book, Earth As Art. “The colors in the photos,” Marrin explains, “are spectacular as a result of computer-enhanced images that highlight specific wavelengths, the majority of which are not visible to humans. The unique art form has become a valuable tool for scientists, who can discern spatial and temporal patterns for everything from vegetation health and ground temperatures to rock types and ocean chemistry. Perceptions gained from this type of artwork have permitted researchers to recognize and understand connections among global phenomena that would have other otherwise gone unnoticed.”(10)

In these and many other examples from centers of collaboration, including Harvard’s Artscience Laboratory, MIT’s Center for Art, Science, and Technology (CAST), and The Scientists/Artists Research Collaborations(SARC) at the Santa Fe Institute, individuals are using knowledge of spatial and temporal patterns to create and communicate new perceptions of the natural and human designed worlds.

At, we invite teachers and students, alike, to use the cross cutting concept, patterns as a conceptual tool to deepen their own understandings of the natural and designed worlds. Our links to online pattern activities enable students to develop pattern recognition and pattern forming abilities by exploring number patterns and relationships, by creating fractal patterns, or by exploring spatial patterns in online interactive mapping.

Like the alternating rhythms of habit and attention, students who are introduced to the cross-disciplinary character of spatial and temporal patterns move between pattern perception that is sometimes mechanical in nature to genuinely creative perceptions that are “original and revolutionary.” Without such opportunities for creative expression, we would, to paraphrase Edward De Bono, “forever repeat the same patterns.”(11)

  1. D.L. Marrin, “Enhancing Interactions Between Artists and Scientists Via A Common Language,” Academic Journal of Science, Vol. 2, No. 2 (December 2013): 514

  2. Hunter Whitney, “It’s About Time : Visualizing temporal data to reveal patterns and stories,” UX Magazine, Article No. 1316 (September 30, 2014). Accessed 3/11/2016

  3. D.L. Marrin, Ibid., 511.

  4. Brian Edwards, The Modern Airport Terminal: New Approaches to Airport Architecture, (London: Taylor and Francis, 2004), 55.

  5. Lucy Lamp, “Design in Art: Repetition, Pattern, and Rhythm,” Sophia Learning, LLC. Accessed January 18, 2016.

  6. Hunter Whitney, Ibid.

  7. Ibid.

  8. John F Vernberg - Winona B Vernberg , Behavior and Ecology, Vol. 7, In The Biology of Crustaceans, Editor-in-Chief, Dorothy E. Bliss (New York: Academic Press, 1983). Google Books.

  9. Gill Reef. Also see West Marrin, “Dialogue: Functional Art and Water Science.” SciArt in America (June 2014): 34-36.

  10. D.L. Marrin, “Enhancing Interactions Between Artists and Scientists Via A Common Language,” p. 514-15.

  11. De Bono, Edward, Serious Creativity: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Create New Ideas (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992), 169.


Debra Henning, M.A. University of Chicago
Curriculum and Instruction
STEM to STEAM and Design Learning Consultant