Research concerning the educational value of dynamic visualizations is contradictory and inconclusive, leaving developers and practitioners in disagreement about whether to use visualizations and how best to exploit their apparent value. Yet science educators and their students remain convinced of the value of visualizations and take advantage of the increasing power of computers to use them widely. In the VISUAL project, we're conducting a thorough and thoughtful set of experiments to elucidate this area of research and provide guidance to practitioners in using visualizations for learning and assessment.

Dynamic visualizations — which we define as interactive, computer-based animations of scientific phenomena — provide an alternative pathway for students to learn science concepts through exploration. Visualizations make unseen processes like chemical reactions or planetary motion visible. They allow students to conduct virtual experiments about complex situations such as global climate change, airbag safety, or home insulation. They can also help students link multiple representations such as symbolic equations, unseen interactions, and observable phenomena.

Visualizing to Integrate Science Understanding for All Learners (VISUAL) is investigating, comparing, and refining promising visualizations to determine how and when they improve science learning. The result will be new tools and a powerful, open-source learning environment that will readily integrate new visualizations, incorporate best practices from research, and support researchers, designers, and teachers.

Principal Investigator

Amy Pallant

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DRL-0918743. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

We will study how visualizations can transform science instruction by addressing these research questions:

  • When and how do visualizations improve science learning outcomes?
    • How do students with a wide range of disciplinary knowledge, socioeconomic backgrounds, beliefs about science, and spatial experience learn from visualizations?
    • What makes some visualizations succeed and others fail?
  • How can visualization-rich curriculum materials enable all students to learn complex science topics?
    • What are the best ways to embed visualizations in instruction, combine hands-on, probeware, and visualization experiences, and design assessments to enable all students to succeed?
    • How can teachers support students as they engage in these practices?
  • What design practices and cyberlearning tools generalize to new curricula?
    • Which principles and patterns work for new topics and visualizations?
    • Which cyberlearning features consistently help students and teachers use visualizations successfully?
    • How can visualizations connect formal and informal learning?
    • How can we communicate our findings in authoring tools, teachers support tools, and curriculum design environments?

In collaboration with the advisory board and teachers from participating schools, VISUAL will select visualizations and curricular activities and integrate them into WISE. We will study visualizations that (a) are open source, (b) have shown promise in prior research, (c) address consequential standards-based topics, and (d) take full advantage of modern technologies.

In Phase I we study how students interpret visualizations for thermal equilibrium, heat flow, and density in 6th grade; light and seasons in seventh grade; motion, forces, chemical reactions, solar system, and phase change in 8th grade; and the 6th-8th grade topics plus chemical bonding, electricity, magnetism, and thermodynamics of reactions in high school.

We will use insights from Phase I to collaborate with the high school chemistry and physics teachers to design and test curriculum materials for six major topics in Phase II (chemical reactions, bonding, phase change, motion, forces, and thermodynamics of reactions) and four in Phase III (thermal equilibrium, heat flow, solar system, and electricity). We will create versions of the global climate change curriculum for all grade levels.

We will compare visualizations designed to address the same challenge. For example PhET, MW, and NetLOGO have designed visualizations for molecular reactions, global warming, and thermodynamics that differ in how they highlight salient information, type of student controls, and complexity. We will study how students interpret different visualizations by implementing three to six visualizations at each grade level.

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