Syracuse University Magazine

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The Art of Learning Science

What’s an approachable way to teach science? School of Information Studies research professor Jun Wang has a special answer: comics. Wang explored an interdisciplinary world where he could combine his computational background with art to create a digital learning tool to help students of all ages learn science. DoodleBook, a website whose mission is to make science more accessible and engaging through art, is the result of his exploration. “Science educators can introduce everyday situations and popular culture into learning materials through visual stories such as comics, and thus make learning more related and effective,” Wang says.

Wang’s idea for DoodleBook was inspired by the Picturing to Learn project, an initiative created by MIT research scientist Felice Frankel in which undergraduate science majors were asked to draw various scientific phenomena as a way to explain the concepts to high school students. Wang met Frankel at a conference sponsored by the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI), and after receiving a $100,000 grant from NAKFI in 2013, they began to explore how to unlock the power of visual learning to its full potential in the era of massive free online education. “The idea behind drawing to learn in science is that it forces students to break down a concept into small tangible pieces before they can start to draw,” Wang says.

Shying away from the traditional encyclopedia style of presenting information, DoodleBook shares science knowledge with an illustration and a casual tone. Kyra Nay G’15, an iSchool graduate student at the time, served as a research assistant on the project, researching and writing about the topics and coordinating the illustrators’ work. She has created more than 125 topics ranging from wind chill, color-blindness, and allergies to earthquakes, electrical circuits, and freckles. To explain why freckles form, for example, the illustrator sets a scene in which three friends talk about how tanned they got from a beach vacation; one of the girls who didn’t get tanned at all shows her freckles and explains how they are clusters of melanin that form to protect her skin. The website has a participatory element as well, allowing people to contribute their own illustrations and also vote on their favorite ones. “We try to engage as big of an audience as possible in comics drawing,” Wang says.

Though the comics can be entertaining, the effort of illustrators behind the scenes is challenging. “Lots of my work, outside of DoodleBook, tends to be very political and social justice oriented,” says Madeleine Slade ’16, an illustration major in the College of Visual and Performing Arts who was one of several SU students who contributed drawings to the project. “I didn’t do a lot of science work before, but this required me to learn many abstract concepts.” The challenge proved to be a rewarding experience for her, as she can now create a bunch of different characters to enrich the content. “To ensure the diversity of stories, I designed a variety of people with different appearances, body sizes, and personalities,” she says. 

Besides popularizing science and health knowledge for the general audience, DoodleBook can also play an important educational function in the classroom, helping students learn the material by creating illustrations to explain difficult concepts. Professor Bei Yu of the iSchool has used this approach in her teaching in the past year. Instead of asking students to demonstrate their understanding verbally, she asks them to use DoodleBook to show their visual understanding. “Traditional assignments are mostly done in writing, but sometimes words can be ambiguous,” Yu says. “I realized that, through illustration, students can present their thoughts in a more clear way, and it helped me quickly see what understanding level they are at. ” —Liu Jiang

Artwork by Madeleine Slade ’16; courtesy of DoodleBook