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Getting the Picture

Teachers discuss the importance of visual aids.

Biology happens in three dimensions. Proteins have divots and appendages that act like locks and keys, and when two proteins touch, their shapes can shift like open hands clenching into fists. To understand biology at the molecular level, students have to understand biological compounds as physical entities.

Images like this model of a protein help students in introductory biology classes visualize molecules’ three-dimensional shapes.

That’s where visualization tools can help. In biology professor Graham Walker’s classes, using visualization software to do problem sets “is having a transformational effect on what students think a protein is,” Walker said at a colloquium on the use of visual aids in education. “Biology at the molecular level is carried out by entities with 3-D structures. When you look at a static, 2-D representation of a protein, it’s hard to get a sense of what it’s like and what its properties are.”

Walker was one of a roomful of MIT educators who had gathered to swap advice about using animation, line drawings, and models to help students better understand abstract scientific concepts.

Professor John Belcher, for example, uses 3-D graphics and animation to teach students about invisible forces as part of a physics education program called Technology-Enabled Active Learning. The physical world is governed by forces of repulsion and attraction that can be hard to visualize, no matter how well teachers explain them. With animation, “you can show processes you normally can’t observe,” Belcher said. “We make a 3-D model of an experiment they actually do. It’s important it look just like it.”

A third speaker, Frédo Durand, is an associate professor who works in the computer graphics group at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Although his work centers on 3-D imaging, he praised the simplicity of line drawings and urged teachers to have students come up with their own visualizations–even if they’re just doodles. Such exercises, Durand argued, force students to “think much more deeply than when they are just looking.”

“Visualization provides a different perspective on what you’re teaching,” said Durand. Teachers often use meta­phors to get a point across, and visu­alization is another version of the same thing: “Some students get one metaphor, some another.”

The colloquium was sponsored by the Office of Educational Innovation and Technology, which plans to offer online resources for MIT teachers who want to incorporate visual learning into their curricula.

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