While written and oral language dominate instruction, the explosion of visual information has created new opportunities to represent complexity, reveal themes, explore data, and communicate information in powerful ways. Here is an overview of some of my favorite examples of visual data representation for education.
Image from http://pymol.org/
Students cannot see individual molecules and are normally confined to shaded textbook illustrations and small plastic model building kits. Molecular modeling software represents data from crystallographic analysis of substances as 3D graphics. This allows students to more fully develop their mental concept of molecules through zoom, rotation, color, and different representations (line, spheres, mesh, etc.). Students can quickly load and manipulate dozens of different molecules (e.g., amino acids), or large molecules with interesting symmetries and structural regions (e.g., DNA, proteins).
An alternate representation of water (http://pymol.org/)
Graphs and Charts
Most of us cannot discern patterns and trends in numerical data and instead rely on graphs to reveal them. Commonly available graphing tools have continued to improve in sophistication and integration with specific types of data sets.
GapMinder opened many eyes to the explanatory power of visually representing a huge variety of demographic data. Trends in HIV infection rates, distribution of wealth, and dozens of other data sets become visible through bubble charts. Animation makes visible trends as the data changes over time.
HIV Epidemic 1980-2009, GapMinder
Logger Pro draws line graphs of experimental data collected from Vernier data probes. This creates nearly instant visual representations of physical phenomena as they happen.
WorldMapper displays international demographic data differently, by distorting the sizes of countries based on different demographic measures. Map mashups have taken social networks by storm in the past year, whether in the more complex form that shades states (or even counties) based on different measures or the simpler form that simply labels states with words or visuals to reflect a trend.
Word clouds represent text information in a simple way, by having the word size reflect its frequency in a body of text. Its effect is very direct, albeit limited, as single words lose a lot of their meaning out of the context of phrases and paragraphs. The word clouds of all of the State of the Union addresses is an effective example of making themes in history visible through word clouds.
2013 State Of the Union Address, ABC News
Concept mapping has been around for a long time but hit its peak with the use of Inspiration software. Learning specialists have advocated concept and mind mapping for years to allow students to visually organize concepts for pre-writing as well as conceptual understanding. When paired with high quality questions and feedback, concept and mind mapping can encourage critical thinking and direct study of the relationships among concepts in a topic.
Example concept map from Inspiration.com
Earth and Space
I recently saw one of the old “Puget Sound From Space” posters hanging in a classroom.The qualification from space seems quaint now that our students can smoothly pinch and zoom satellite databases using their own phones and tablets. Thanks to Google Earth, perhaps we no longer consciously realize that most geographic and stellar imagery is a visual representation of satellite and telescope data. Radar and spectral data is combined with colorization to represent distant or very large objects as if we are viewing them with our eyes. We would also do well to remember that the objects we “see” are also only the mental representations of the patterns and qualities of light passing through our eyes and interpreted by our brains.