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Illustrations in science education – raising the game

10 Feb, 2014

Heart diagram

Illustrations can be a powerful way to engage people with scientific concepts. Sir John Holman, the Wellcome Trust’s Senior Fellow in Education, and Stephanie Sinclair and Rosalyn Taylor in Wellcome’s Education and Learning team believe we should be creating more accurate and meaningful illustrations to use in the classroom. They tell us about the approach recently taken by the Big Picture team to test out one model for how this might work.

There’s a reason that the phrase: “A picture speaks a thousand words” is so often repeated. Watch any student using a science textbook and you will realise it’s the pictures they look at first.

Yet surprisingly little effort goes into thinking deeply about how educational illustrations work and how they could do better.  Many educational authors start with the words and add the pictures later.

A lot of thought goes into the words and the layout, but the illustrations often get little attention as learning objects (devices to help people learn).  Examples of important illustrations would be the function of the kidney, the process of mitosis, and the structure of proteins.

Students can be enlightened by good illustrations but thoroughly confused by poor ones.  Teachers, who have a secure understanding of (say) the structure of proteins, may overlook the confusion that a standard two-dimensional picture of the alpha helix may create in a student’s mind.  The carefully thought out, highly professional illustrations to be found in some modern instruction manuals set a standard which many text-book illustrations fall well short of.

What might be done?

What would it be like if authors and illustrators started from scratch, thinking through illustrations very carefully, consulting scientists and trialling them with students before finalising them?

We had an opportunity to try this approach at the Wellcome Trust during production the latest issue of Big Picture, our twice-yearly publication for teachers of post-16 biology.  The spring 2014 issue is all about proteins and we used it to try out our idea.

What we did

B0001860 model of human lysozymeThe key members of our team were Bret Syfert, our professional illustrator, who has worked with us before on scientific illustrations, but who would be the first to tell you he is not a scientist; Stephen Curry, Professor of Structural Biology at Imperial College and expert on protein structure; and a small group of students and their teacher Matthew Davis at Denbigh School, Milton Keynes.  We decided to try out the method using protein structure as an example – illustrations of primary, secondary and tertiary structures are to be found in any standard A-level biology textbook, but we wanted to see if we could do better.

We went through the following stages.

  1. We selected two or three examples of protein structure diagrams from existing textbooks and showed them to Bret to brief him on the basic principles.  Between us, we reviewed the diagrams and decided which features we liked and which we did not, and on Stephen’s advice we decided to feature a specific protein, lysozyme, in our picture.  Lysozyme is found in a number of secretions including tears and its structure includes both alpha helices and beta sheets, the main types of secondary structures.  Bret went off to have a first shot.
  2. Once we had Bret’s first draft, we all gave critical feedback, Stephen’s being particularly important because we wanted it to be as accurate as possible.
  3. Big Picture ProteinsFrom this feedback, Bret produced the second draft. We took this to Denbigh School and showed it to the students, with some questions designed to test their understanding based on the illustration.  The students were pleased to be consulted, took the exercise very seriously and suggested revisions to further improve the illustration’s clarity and impact. They provided a lot of useful comments ranging from a desire to see more colour in the illustration to confusion around the way amino acids were being presented.
  4. We processed the students’ feedback and briefed Bret to produce the final version, which we took back to the school to check the students were happy. The group was pleased that their comments had been incorporated correctly and were positive about the end result. You can see it at on the Big Picture Proteins page listed under illustrations.  It is free for anyone to use for educational purposes.

What next?

We are pleased with the way that this experiment worked, and we think the methodology could be adopted more widely to produce authoritative illustrations of scientific principles that really help learning.  We would be very interested to hear from others who are thinking about scientific illustrations and who would like to join in the discussion.  We’d also be very interested to hear from teachers who have used the protein illustration, and what you think of it compared to others.  Please contact with your comments.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 27 Mar, 2014 2:20 pm

    Nice to see a diagram of a heart with all the right blood vessels visible. Very often school text books don’t show them all. However, I’m not impressed by the ‘Big picture’ diagrams showing the secondary structure of lysozyme. The alpha helices are just about discernible in the pictures, but the beta-pleated sheets are not. It’s just a mess: I don’t think they help much at all.

  2. 2 Mar, 2015 10:16 pm

    For me, as an illustrator, is always the most important thing to understand what I am drawing. If I am drawing a flower, I need to know more than what just my eyes can tell about it. What are the functions of some tiny parts of it, where does it grow (shadow, sunny place), does it prefer dry soil to mud. All kind of knowledge helps to understand how the flower should be drawn, are the leaves shiny or fluffy or hard like needles.

    Was interesting to hear about co-operating with students. :)

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