Explaining science with drawings

Explaining science with drawings

Summary: A recent news release from the US National Science Foundation (NSF) mentions a project it helped to fund, 'Picturing to Learn.' For this project, college students have to create pencil drawings to explain scientific concepts to high school students. As says Felice Frankel, a Harvard University researcher who is leading this project, 'Visually explaining concepts can be a powerful learning tool. The other important part of this is that the teacher immediately identifies student misconceptions.' I'm sure this can be a fun educational tool. But it's interesting to note that a 2006 news release from the MIT already mentioned this project, saying that Frenkel already spent five years on it. This leads to a question: why is the NSF issuing a news release about a project which is seven years old? But read more...

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A recent news release from the US National Science Foundation (NSF) mentions a project it helped to fund, 'Picturing to Learn.' For this project, college students have to create pencil drawings to explain scientific concepts to high school students. As says Felice Frankel, a Harvard University researcher who is leading this project, 'Visually explaining concepts can be a powerful learning tool. The other important part of this is that the teacher immediately identifies student misconceptions.' I'm sure this can be a fun educational tool. But it's interesting to note that a 2006 news release from the MIT already mentioned this project, saying that Frenkel already spent five years on it. This leads to a question: why is the NSF issuing a news release about a project which is seven years old? But read more...

An explanation of the Brownian motion

Let's start with an example. You can see above a drawing explaining the Brownian motion -- the movement of particles suspended in a liquid or gas and the impact of raising the temperature of the liquid. (Credit: Kara Culligan, Harvard University) This drawing has been picked from the Picturing to learn website. Unfortunately, it has been designed with Adobe's Flash technology. If you want to see a larger version of this drawing, you'll need to enter the site and to visit the "Students Drawing" section. Alternatively, you can look at other drawings provided by the NSF.

This project gathers researchers from five institutions including Harvard University and the MIT. The lead researcher, Felice Frankel, is a Senior Research Fellow in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, where she heads the Envisioning Science program at Harvard's Initiative in Innovative Computing (IIC). She also maintains two Flash-based identical sites at Harvard and the MIT.

Here is an excerpt from the recent NSF news release. "Each drawing assignment asks students to explain a science concept or process. For example, in addressing the question of how to identify which of two compounds has the higher boiling point, students are encouraged to be creative and to consider a variety of formats, including cartoons and stick figures. Students are also told, 'In your drawing, strive for clarity in visually representing the concepts of bond type and strength.' Many of the drawings bring scientific concepts to life in interesting and unexpected ways. They also bring any misconceptions immediately to light so that professors can address them with students."

Now, let's take a look at a June 27, 2006 MIT news release about the same project, "'Picturing to Learn' makes science visual," which also includes its own image gallery.

Back in 2006, Donald Sadoway, Professor of Materials Chemistry at the MIT, "asked his students to create drawings that explained and compared molecular bonds in compounds with different boiling points. They were encouraged to look at physical features such as molecular size and electron configuration to account for the forces at work within and between molecules. For many students, the assignment was a challenge and something that brought them outside of their comfort zone. 'They are afraid of being anything but the best,' Sadoway said."

It's also worth noting that Sadoway benefited from the experiment as much as his students did. "For some students, the assignment highlighted a failure to see the whole picture, Sadoway said. While students can memorize equations and correctly answer quantitative test questions, it is far more important that they walk away with a deeper conceptual understanding, which was an intended outcome of the picturing exercises, he said. 'This is a different mode of communication, and it really works for some people,' said Sadoway. The exercise was also eye-opening for Sadoway. 'By studying the drawings of students who answered incorrectly I was able to zoom in on the precise nature of their misunderstanding. On this basis I have learned how to revise the way I teach this topic,' he said."

As said the MIT news release, "if a picture is worth a thousand words, perhaps drawing and visualizing can help science students understand more than they get from their textbooks." But why the NSF is issuing a news release which doesn't bring any new information, except that "four Harvard physics majors will take their work to the next level on April 12, when they travel to New York City for a workshop with design students at the School of Visual Arts (SVA)"? Any clues? Drop me a note.

Sources: US National Science Foundation (NSF) press release, April 10, 2008; Sasha Brown, MIT News Office, June 27, 2006; and various websites

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