Art Enhances Physics Learning
By Calla Cofield
Student drawing illustrating Brownian motion
Rather than view this as a disadvantage, Felice Frankel sees it as an opportunity. Frankel is a science photographer and holds concurrent positions at the Wyss Institute and Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School and at MIT. She is currently the principal investigator for a program called “Picturing to Learn,” which asks undergraduate students of physics, chemistry and biology to draw or illustrate the concepts they are learning as if they were explaining the science to a high school student. This often requires the use of a metaphor or the simplification of the concept. What Frankel says is most helpful about the illustrations is not seeing the students illustrate the concepts correctly, but finding the concepts they miss or get wrong. This allows professors to pinpoint the concepts the students have missed, and prepare their lectures accordingly.
“You can talk about what the student has drawn and what the metaphor is, but you can also talk about where the metaphor falls apart,” says Frankel. “And I think that also leads to a much deeper discussion about the concepts and a deeper understanding.”
So far, Frankel and the Picturing to Learn program have collected over 4,000 student drawings showing things like bumper cars to illustrate Brownian motion. The program is funded by the National Science Foundation, and the student drawings will be made available online sometime in March.
Physics students aren’t the only ones Frankel thinks could use visual communication lesson. She also leads Image and Meaning workshops, which offer scientists, writers and communicators consultation and training in creating better, more meaningful images to accompany their publications.
“We know how powerful visualizations are,” Frankel said at the April Meeting. “The public swallows them up! But we also know how wrong they can be.”
Frankel is aware that, as she states in reference to the Picturing to Learn program, metaphors fall apart. An illustration of a scientific concept, or a color corrected photo can leave a false or incomplete impression on the audience, so while Frankel strongly encourages scientists to include more images with their work, she also emphasizes the need to educate the public on how those images are created and what they mean. She says the fact that she explains how she generated her images, and any treatment she’s done to them, is what distinguishes her from a traditional artist or photographer.
Despite the challenge presented by translating science through imagery, Frankel says the feedback from the scientific community has been positive, and scientists realize that a good image can be worth a thousand words.
Picturing to Learn (PtL) Website
Image and Meaning Website
Felice C. Frankel is coauthor with George M. Whiteside for No Small Matter, Science on the Nanoscale (Harvard University Press, 2009).
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