New Perspectives in Science Education

Edition 14

Accepted Abstracts

Thinking Through Images: the Varied Roles of Visuals in Undergraduate Learning in the Earth Sciences and Beyond

Anne Marie Ryan, Dalhousie University (Canada)


Students come to our undergraduate classrooms typically fluent in text-reading, but less so in reading images, videos, graphs, and maps for scientific meaning. In a discipline such as the Earth sciences where nature is the first “laboratory” and observation is a critical skill, we can be literally at a loss for words in describing what we see – it is not unusual for an Earth scientist to draw what they see in order to describe and interpret. However, weather, systemic structures, cost, logistics, and a host of other considerations mean that we cannot always teach in the field. The use of visuals in our teaching is one way in which we can get a little closer to the field experience, but if students fail to see and understand what we expect them to see and understand from a given visual, then the image is simply a nice picture or drawing, and not a valuable teaching tool. Visuals used wisely can serve to bring the global into the classroom, stimulate discussion, and broaden perspectives, in addition to clarifying a concept. How do we help students develop their ability to “read” images, diagrams, graphs, maps, and videos so they better understand the concepts and ideas? Are there threshold concepts involved in learning to read a visual as experts read such visuals? And how can we encourage students to develop their own use of images as a means to communicate the science effectively? Modern technologies mean students can photograph and describe features to demonstrate their understanding; they can use images to support text in infographics; images can be discussion starters for new concepts or ideas, or they can serve to summarize and synthesize their learning. This session explores the use of visuals from two perspectives: (1) as an effective teaching tool for a variety of topics within the Earth sciences and beyond to students at all undergraduate levels; and (2) student use of visuals as an engaging way for them to convey their understanding, as well as a means of bringing the outside world into their classroom learning.

Keywords: visuals, science, undergraduate education, learning;


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