MIT investigators recently received an NSF grant to change the way researchers in science and engineering see and image their work. The goal is to help scientists realize the potential of visuals in learning, teaching and communicating science.
The two-year, $195,000 grant from NSF's Division of Undergraduate Education will support MIT undergraduate seminars and curricula additions on creating better scientific images and other forms of visual expression such as diagrams and figures. The resulting materials and methodologies will be used to prepare a how-to guide on the subject that could ultimately be distributed to researchers at other universities. MIT Press, among others, has shown an interest in publishing the guide.
"Modern communication of scientific results makes frequent use of images and figures. However, scientists are rarely trained in the creation of images and frequently give little consideration to their communicative power," said Felice Frankel, a science photographer and artist-in-residence at the Edgerton Center.
Ms. Frankel, who is co-principal investigator for the grant with J. Kim Vandiver, a professor in the Department of Ocean Engineering and director of the Edgerton Center, said that not only do finely crafted images of science help communicate that science to others, including the public, but the image-creating process itself is a valuable learning tool.
"We've observed that students who learn how to photograph with technical skill and with a keen eye for aesthetics also think in new ways about the research they are recording in their images. As a consequence, they ask new kinds of questions about that research," she said.
Wrote one of the reviewers of the MIT proposal: "Improved observational skills [could] uncover data previously stared at by lesser-trained eyes. Also, eyes that are `stuck' in a monotechnical rut, when opened by full exposure to a modern array of `seeing' instruments, are much more likely to discover there are additional and/or different data extractable from their research."
Through a collaboration with the Scripps Institute in California, the new project will also introduce students to the potential of communicating images over the Internet.
Ms. Frankel will be approaching faculty in all disciplines about bringing visual exercises into the classroom and lab. She welcomes hearing from faculty and other researchers who would like more information on visualizing science. She can be reached at x3-5604 or
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 30, 1997.