NestEd Speaker Utilizes Visual Aids to Promote Science Comprehension

For students who struggle to understand complex scientific topics, visual aids can often make a world of difference in promoting comprehension. NestEd speaker Gaël McGill, a professor at Harvard Medical School, is hoping to create more helpful science visualizations.

McGill visited Andover on Wednesday night to present in The Nest, in the basement of the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library. In his talk, McGill discussed his studies of the intersection between science and art. McGill uses art and visualizations to make scientific topics, biology in particular, easier for students to comprehend.

“A lot of our work explores the intersection between science and art, and not just how the two touch as disciplines, but how you might use an artistic approach to achieve things in science, and how you might use a scientific approach, or way of thinking, to develop visual communications, as you communicate with other people,” said McGill.

McGill has spent over six years at Harvard Medical School creating visualizations to make difficult biology topics more approachable for all people.

“If you have too much data and you’re trying to make sense of it, you can use visualization tools and you can leverage the power of the human visual system to find patterns and to find more meaningful results off of what is otherwise just a pile of numbers on a spreadsheet,” said McGill. “And, not just for those of us who are scientists, but for anyone who is learning, for students. The visualizations we create are intended not only to help you learn and understand an aspect of science, but to remember it, and to do things with it.”

McGill focuses on design to capture readers’ attention and make concepts easy to understand.

“Everything we do is a little bit of science, technology, software, art and design… The impact of design on the visuals you create have an impact on your learning outcomes,” said McGill.

Among the attendees of McGill’s presentation was Jeremiah Hagler, Instructor of Biology. Hagler uses McGill’s visualizations in many of the biology classes he teaches at Andover.

“I use them all the time in my class,” said Hagler in an interview with The Phillipian. “I think they allow students to actually see what’s going on in a real way, it’s actually accurate representations of data, so kids aren’t getting a misrepresentation of what’s actually going on. This is sort of a real, accurate representation. They actually see the wonder of the biology, how it actually works. It’s much better than abstract animation, or writing on a chalkboard or something. You actually see what’s going on, and have an idea of how it’s going. It’s very powerful.”

This clarity for students is what McGill ultimately intends to achieve with each of the visualizations he produces.

McGill said, “For me, what is most important about visualizations is that there are very clear learning objectives. Everything we do in the visualizations, how we design them, how long we make them, how we make them, is based on who the audience is and what is it that I want you to walk away with after watching it. So it’s being really focused on the target audience, and making sure that the visualization meets the learning objectives.”

Henry Desai ’17, an attendee, said in an interview with The Phillipian, “Everyone likes to simplify things in, as [McGill] said, the hope of making things more learnable. But sometimes showing people the full picture can give people a greater appreciation of what’s really happening, and make people more interested in it.”

Gracie Limoncelli ’18, who was also an audience member, said, “I thought [the presentation] was really amazing, I was just smiling the entire time because it was so exciting honestly. I think the idea of building the models could really help you understand the ideas a lot better… Learning photosynthesis could just be so much easier!”