Seeing the Unseen: Visualization and Education

Blogging from the airport, notes from a SIGGRAPH 2006 Educators panel discussion this morning.


Thomas G. West, James Martinez, Jerry Uhl

West started the discussion:

His two books (working on his third):


In the Mind’s Eye

Thinking Like Einstein

West’s work studies brilliant people known to be “visual thinkers” (Einstein and other Nobel prize winners) who are also dyslexic. Among other things, he’s looking for a connection between the two characteristics. He is of the opinion (I have to say I agree) that we sometimes medicate people and conditions that we would be better off encouraging and accomodating instead. James’ work at his school pretty well proves the point.

Visual Learning for Science & Engineering” – Eurographics Digital Library, Mike McGrath and J. Brown

Bill Dreyer, molecular biologist at Cal Tech: “High visual” – an example from Thomas, who read his book, called and said, “That’s me. Thoughts how I think and work.” Dreyer’s accomplishments include:

Mental models

New Instruments

New data

Bold theories

New companies

Thomas notes that even in Dreyer’s example, his unusual way of thinking led to unusual creativity, and often led to him being ahead of his time with his theories and his work. Those who came after often supported and validated it, sometimes 10 years later.

Einstein: as he matured into more of a focus on math, he became both less visual and less creative

The Bragg family (Sir Lawrence Bragg, James D Watson) – a family history of both Nobel prizes (four of them) and dyslexia.

James Martinez, Director of Art and Technology at the Wye River Upper School

WRUS accepts traditional learners (regular kids) and students with a variety of learning “styles ”

All students are required to purchase an Apple iBook


He teaches Art I, Technology, Art II, Photo / Video

Elements and principles of design leads to a powerpoint presentation

Art leads to animation of some kind

Students maintain their own digital portfolios


This is done with the expectation that they apply what they learn in other classes

As Director of Technology:

Teach students use and maintenance of their laptop

Train faculty (how to podcast, for instance)

Help teachers develop lesson plans that are rich in art and technology throughout the year

His missions:

To cultivate instructors who use art and technology in creative ways

To graduate students who are comfortable with applying technology to a wide variety of creative projects

Art (first 9th grade curriculum)

Design elements and principles

Use drawing program to create designs

Use designs to create a presentation

Students concentrate on concepts rather than materials, and apply those concepts to all their presentations

Photo / Video

Composition and frame


They visualize complete projects using storyboards

Crew management develops

Time management develops

Working in a non-linear method


English (12th grade)

Senior project required both a written and visual component

Strong visual thinkers can translate the visual into written

Editing timeline serves as an essay outline


Animating civil war battles


Find maps and photos

Create an animation

Create slides for their battle

Students understand the sequence of events by placing troops and moving them simultaneously

Deeper understanding achieved through the creation of presentation slides


While studying a unit on waves, students create graphics and movies to explain the concepts

They organize those into a presentation, and develop a better understanding of the concepts and relationships in the process


Introduced to a song

Create the song in Garage Band

Study the sheet music

They apply all this to their own composition


(He plays a 10th grade original composition – wow! – I’ll ask him to link it from here)



Hog Bay” and “Mac Journal” are software they use to keep information accessible

Folders and pages and notes are all managed and saved automatically (critical point!!!), and teachers can send the class materials out to them all that way.

Students can see all work at a glance

Searching is easier

They begin to understand and visually organize a computer folder

By the 10the grade all students can substitute presentations and video for written/paper submissions

Jerry Uhl

Very funny guy – meet him or just listen when you can. 😀 Teaches university-level calculus at

University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (Favorite quotations about math)

Demonstrates some matrix math examples that are visually presented and animated: 2D, 3D and 4D – cool! Will try to get info about these online. File reference is MatrixMSEB.nb

His “kids” are college calculus students.

They push students to work during class on the material – they do not give lectures! They walk around and chat with students as they do the actual coursework during course time – and because of that know far more about their students than they ever did before. Students like it too, of course.

On the point about medicating kids: one of their students who did particular well with their visual method of teaching was diagnosed with ADD, but in all his other courses his grades lagged. His doctor prescribed medication to help with his condition, and his grades in the traditional classes all indeed went up – while his grades in their calculus class went down! He told the story in an ironically funny way, and got some laughs, but it’s rather an important point, isn’t it?

The two basic points they were all emphasizing were that 1) visualization is a powerful way both to think and to learn, and 2) kids with ADD and dyslexia and Asberger’s syndrome do not necessarily need to be medicated. Their general point is that kids learn and think in many different ways, and thus should be taught in different ways – some kids just have particularly visible conditions that demonstrate this general point.

One note just from observing these three – all are Mac users. The data I know is that Windows dominates the educational market more than most people think it does (the data I have is that it has won the market from Apple over the last 10 or 15 years and is now at 85% or 90% of market) – but there are clearly still a lot of Mac fans. Perhaps the graphical emphasis of SIGGRAPH-interested academics makes for different statistics?


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