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Learning by drawing

For generations, teachers have conveyed complicated concepts by drawing sketches on a board. Now college science students are being asked to draw the sketches and explain the concepts themselves, as a way to help them learn at a deeper level.

The project, called "Picturing to Learn," is the brainchild of Felice Frankel, a scientific photographer and Senior Research Fellow at Harvard University. In 2005, Frankel received a grant from the National Science Foundation to try her idea in a few science classes, including "Introduction to Solid State Chemistry" at MIT and "Invisible Worlds: Micro- and Nanothings" at Harvard.

Students were asked to explain various concepts by drawing pictures that a high school student could understand. You can see several of those drawings on the program's Web site. More drawings accompany this press release from MIT.

Kara Culligan, a student in George Whitesides' micro-nano class at Harvard, says drawing gave her a chance to be more creative, and was a nice break after all the calculations. "I'm definitely a very visual learner," she says. "You have to understand it fully before you can draw it."

One assignment asked her to describe the behavior of a "particle in a box," an abstract concept in quantum mechanics in which a particle is constrained to remain inside a defined region of space. "I visualized a little particle bouncing around in a box," Culligan says. This gave her the idea to depict the concept as a pinball game where sections of the game represent the different energy levels the particle can have. In another drawing, Culligan represented Brownian motion as bumper cars colliding.

Sadoway has employed "Picturing to Learn" in his last three freshman chemistry classes. He says he uses it to teach certain difficult concepts, such as understanding the relationship between chemical-bond strength and boiling point. When students try to explain this in words, Sadoway says, he can't be sure they really understand the concept: "Sometimes the right terms are there, but the explanation may be muddy." When he asks for a calculation, "They'll give me answers to three significant figures in no time, but they may not understand the relevant science." But when students have to draw a picture of how it works, "I can see whether the student understood the topic right off the bat."

Because the drawings show students' misconceptions so clearly, Sadoway says, he can now anticipate which concepts are likely to confuse learners. "It's changed the way I teach," he says, adding that students seem to do better in these topics on the final exam.

NSF Program Officer Hal Richtol says "Picturing to Learn" can work in chemistry, physics, biology, engineering, or even mathematics. Drawing and science go together, he says: "When professionals get together, once a sticking point comes up, people start drawing diagrams."

The program originally received what the NSF calls a "phase I award"--a grant at the local level for trying out new ideas--in 2005. Based on positive evaluations of its benefits, "Picturing to Learn" got a second NSF grant in 2007 to expand the program to the regional level. More schools are signing on, including Duke University and Roxbury Community College, as well as more professors at Harvard and MIT.

How can they tell the program works?

Program evaluation isn't just about test scores, Richtol says: "There are lots of factors involved in student learning. Evaluation is really a sociology project."

It would be hard to evaluate the program's effectiveness by comparing student test scores, Sadoway says. To do that in a meaningful way, he would have to divide his classes and give only half the students the drawing assignments, then compare the scores of the two halves of the class on the final exam. For ethical reasons, he says, he can't do that experiment.

Instead, NSF evaluates student learning in a more holistic way. Barbara Tversky is a cognitive psychologist from Columbia Teacher's College who evaluated the program in April. The "Picturing to Learn" program includes a workshop held once each semester at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where science students and design students collaborate to develop pictorial explanations of science concepts. Tversky attended the workshop and observed the interactions of the students.

The workshop attempted to answer "Why is the sky blue?" First the physics students had to get the science straight in their own heads, Tversky says. They quickly realized there were gaps in their knowledge, which they filled by consulting teachers and each other. Then they had to explain the science to the design students. "The design students asked questions the physics students didn't ask," Tversky says.

The students began drawing very concrete representations, such as a person looking up into the sky, but as they worked together the drawings became more abstract and conceptual, Tversky says. Students were also forced to break down the phenomenon into steps before they could represent it accurately.

"Creating the visualization required them to be much more precise," Tversky says. "You have to go from start to finish. It doesn't permit certain kinds of ambiguity. The students came up with some very creative ways to do it; some of the drawings could have been used in textbooks."

According to its Web site, the project plans to offer guidelines and resources for teachers who want to develop their own exercises and workshops.