On a Tuesday morning in February, 18 third graders huddled around a light bulb mounted on a pole. They were learning about astronomy in an upstairs classroom of the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Each of them held a Styrofoam ball stuck on a pencil. Some listened more attentively than others to the moderator, Kyle Hunter, as he told them to imagine that the light bulb was the sun and the Styrofoam ball was the moon.
“Now take off your heads and roll them gently out of the circle,” said Hunter. “OK, now put on your earth heads.”
The tittering children pantomimed unscrewing their heads and replacing them with invisible globes.
Behind them, their teacher, Holly Fishback, watched through her blonde bangs with a tired smile. They had traveled from Sandra E. Lerner Jewish Community Day School in Durham, N.C., that morning and seemed to be enjoying the outing.
“They are very inquisitive kids,” she said. “And they like being able to move around.”
Fishback grabbed a moon ball and joined the group as Hunter directed them to slowly turn in a circle. He told them to keep their eyes on their moon balls and watch how the different phases were created by moving shadows, just like the phases of the real moon as it revolves around the earth.
The kids started moving, some faster than others and one or two in the wrong direction. But after a few seconds, somebody shouted, “I see it!”
And the whole group broke into a high-pitched chorus, chirruping “I see!”
“Pretty awesome, isn’t it?” said Fishback to the boy on her right, as they spun around watching their Styrofoam balls change from half moon to full moon.
Children aren’t the only ones who can use visual models to understand natural phenomena. Members of the general public look to science centers like the planetarium to find new ways to make connections between what science says and how they see the world.
“We have lots of adults that come in here and have never thought about that kind of stuff before,” said Denise Young, director of education and planning at the planetarium. Young, a short woman with a quick laugh, has spent the last decade outfitting the planetarium with hands-on demonstrations and education programs. “We teach whole courses for adults on phases of the moon. Even some teachers are like ‘oh my god, I’ve never seen that before!’”
Carly Apple, the planetarium’s science program director, a 30-year-old from Raleigh, N.C., is in charge of the moon phase classes. She admitted that she hadn’t truly understood how the moon changes phase until she tried the moon ball technique.
“I had even taken an astronomy course in college, but I didn’t really get it until I was training here at Morehead and got to see another staff member do it,” she said. “And then it all clicked.”
Although this teaching model is low tech, it’s effective. A simple visual tool can go a long way in translating complicated information.
“You can spend a whole day’s worth of lecturing about it,” said Apple. “But if you just show them, they get it in a couple of seconds.”
Apple’s sentiment can be applied to many other visual tools used in science communication such as interactive graphics, animations and 3D images. Visual explanations can reach nonscientists in ways a lecture or a textbook can’t.
In a 2009 issue of The International Journal of Science Education, Jayashree Ramadas wrote that the human mind works easily with visuospatial images, and under the right circumstances, they can evoke creative responses.
According to American cognitive scientist Stephen Kosslyn from Stanford University, visualization plays a central role in navigation, memory and creative problem solving. Kosslyn and other researchers have documented how visual tools allow for insight into scientific processes.
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