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Cartoons Can Teach Science, Says TC's Barbara Tversky, Cognitive Psychologist, at AAAS Annual Meeting

Do cartoons work in teaching science? Considerable research says, yes, according to Barbara Tversky, Professor of Psychology and Education, who participated in a panel discussion about the value of cartoons, diagrams and sketches in promoting learning and innovation. The Feb. 14 discussion took place at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science on Innovations, Information and Imaging.

Tversky, a cognitive psychologist who has conducted extensive research in visual communication, summarized and analyzed the current research on the effectiveness of pictures in teaching and learning science at a session on “Visual Learning and Teaching.”

Visual communications, whether produced by students or provided by instructors, “work better than words alone, because visual-spatial communications represent thought more directly than language does,” Tversky wrote in a preview of her presentation.

“Cartooning is an effective way for both professionals and amateurs to convey what they know about science,” Tversky continued. “Professional cartoonists can seamlessly integrate words and images to create compelling narratives that explain scientific topics with a consistent visual framework and rich forms of language—in speech balloons, in narration, in notation--to engage readers with drama and humor.”

But “you don’t have to be Picasso to participate,” Tversky writes. “A glance at XKCD or Dilbert shows that amateur cartoonists”—including both students and teachers—“can also benefit from creating visual explanations.”

The panel covered the gamut of educational cartooning, from professional to amateur.

Tversky was joined by two panelists: Larry Gonick, cartoonist and author of nine cartoon guides to scientific and mathematical subjects and many magazine features (including the only two-page comic ever published in Science magazine); and Manu Prakash, an Assistant Professor of Bioengineering at Stanford.

In the conference program, Gonick “described cartoons’ power to convey complex scientific subjects ranging from genetics to calculus in a way that leaves an indelible and accurate impression on readers’ minds.”

Prakash, a self-described “hack cartoonist” who uses drawing in his teaching, wrote:  “Scientists don’t have to be professional cartoonists to think about playful visualizations as a way to engage audiences in science.” Prakash’s lab at Stanford recently released a microscope made of folded paper, “with a goal of allowing every kid on the planet to project microscopic objects and sketch on top of it to communicate relevant information.”

Organized and moderated by Yoram Bauman of, the panel discussion, “Using Cartoons to Convey Science,” was part of a group of presentations called “Communications and Public Programs,” which also included “Comics, Zombies, and Hip-Hop: Leveraging Pop Culture for Science Engagement,” “Citizen Science from the Zooniverse: Cutting-Edge Research with 1 Million Scientists” and “Science Visualization: The Art of Making Data Beautiful.”

AAAS is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing science. Its annual meeting brings together thousands of scientists, engineers, policymakers, educators, and journalists globally to discuss developments in science and technology.

Published Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015


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