This DoodleBook illustration above, by Syracuse University student Madeline Slade, explains the concepts of the scientific method.

A website featuring the work of a School of Information Studies (iSchool) research professor and graduate student that strives to use artwork to help in the understanding of scientific principles has just launched.

Over the past year, Jun Wang, principal investigator, a research assistant professor at the iSchool; his research partner Felice Frankel, co-principal investigator and a research scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Kyra Nay, a recent graduate of the master’s degree program in Library and Information Science, School Media at the iSchool, have teamed to create the site, called DoodleBook.   

Developed with funding through the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative, the goal of the DoodleBook project is to make science more accessible and engaging through conveying scientific concepts through the use of art, according to Wang.

The site provides science students and educators, at levels from kindergarten to college, with a free online space to create, collaborate, and share their own digital drawings, Wang said. It initially was inspired by Frankel’s Picturing to Learn project, where MIT and Harvard undergraduates majoring in science created drawings to explain scientific phenomena to high school students, according to Wang. Excited about the potential for drawing as a tool for students and science enthusiasts in and out of the classroom, Wang saw an opportunity in that space to infuse new energy and greater creativity into science education, he said.

The project received a $100,000 grant as part of a highly competitive round of proposals for funds to conduct research regarding the informed brain in a digital world. The topic was the focus of the 10th annual Futures conference.

Drawings are effective as a teaching tool for several reasons, the research professor said. That’s because the discipline of drawing:

  • Increases student observational skills, a key skill for scientists
  • Rewards creativity and out-of-the-box thinking
  • Appeals to naturally artistic and visual students
  • Allows English language learners or students with weak language skills to express learning without technical vocabulary
  • Gives students the opportunity to use technology in a meaningful way.

The physical-plus-mental actions involved in drawing abstract scientific concepts in easy-to-interpret pictures helps to cement ideas for those who are trying to learn the concepts, Wang noted. The act of drawing also puts constructive learning strategy and visual thinking skills to use, as differentiated from learning by rote memorization. Drawing as a technique for communication is also an excellent way to check for genuine understanding, since there is no need to rely on others’ words to explain a concept or principle, he explained.

According to recent Nay, who supervised the illustrators throughout the development of the site, “Many of our illustrators have noted that their understanding of particular processes or phenomena is much deeper after figuring out a way to explain it through visuals, rather than words.” For that reason, she said, the team views drawing “as an exciting and important tool for science educators as they educate the young minds of today who will help solve the ecological and economic challenges of tomorrow.”

Over the past year, the DoodleBook team has written and illustrated more than 125 topics across all disciplines of science. All of them are available on the site. More educator and user features are forthcoming, too, according to Wang.

“We encourage faculty and students to check out the site and pass the word along to friends in the science, education, or art departments. They should also feel welcome to  add an illustration, if inspiration strikes,” he said. The site’s integrated Google login makes it easy to create a profile and start drawing. “DoodleBook is just getting started; we can’t wait to see what people will create in the future,” Wang added.

The team encourages science educators to use Doodlebook in the classroom and to add comments and/or suggest improvements for the site.