DC – Sketch Your Science

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December 10, 2018 by Dr. G

Today, I’m at the first full day of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting, being held in Washington DC. It is estimated that there are ~26,000 Earth and space scientists in attendance to give presentations, attend workshops, and network within the community. There are several different activities I’ll be a part of all week, but today, I started off by attending a workshop titled, “How to Sketch Your Science.” This workshop is part of AGU’s Sharing Science program and was led by James Tuttle Keane (Cal Tech) and JoAnna Wendel (NASA). I am in no way an artist beyond being able to draw stick figures and able to hold my own in a game of Pictionary, but I was curious to see how I might be able to use some of their tips for my own science communication. Others were curious to learn as well, since there were over 100 people that showed up for the workshop!

The leaders didn’t waste any time to jump right into the sketching. First up as our Sketch Prompt #1 – Explain Your Science (with the general public as the target audience). Since I’ve recently been quilting science stories of coastal optimism, this was my attempt:

(That’s supposed to be the outline of Louisiana on the left, moving towards people telling their stories which involves listening and making visual observations of the local environment, then adding in my sewing machine and a collection of patterned fabrics, and finally, a quilt that tells a story.)

This first experience made me not want to draw again (ugh!). But we then were given several tips to help us with our sketches: draw other items around the main items to put it in context (for example, if you have to draw an asteroid, draw stars or spaceships around it); know the audience, as that will dictate the level of detail in the sketch; know what you want to communicate; and, don’t be afraid to use humor. We were also reminded that this takes lots of practice, and successful comics such as XKCD are just stick figures with words to make you laugh.

We had another Sketch Prompt – for #2, we had to explain a misconception in science, also to an audience of the general public, in five minutes. Here’s my second sketch:

(The circle on the left shows global warming, and an audience of scientists disagreeing that our increasing temperatures are being caused by human use of fossil fuels, shown by a mixture of yes and no responses from the audience. When, in reality (on the right), there is ~97% agreement among scientists that humans and fossil fuel use is causing our current warming trend, shown by the overall yes responses and one no.)

Did I mention that this is going to take practice? We were encouraged to start with a story, then move on to the sketching. We need to think about why we are doing the drawing, as that will dictate how many words we use along with the sketch. I absolutely agree with starting with a story! (my students should be thinking the same!)

One final Sketch Prompt – Sketch the thing that got you interested in science. Here’s my sketch for this one:

But this video I created for Nautilus Magazine is my own voice sharing my “Spark of Science” (much better than my sketching!). (I wrote an AGU blog post about their Spark of Science campaign, which unfortunately now only includes the videos they created and not the inspiring collection made by scientists themselves.)


Anyway, I am curious to try to do more sketching. It certainly won’t become my day job(!), but if I can get into a regular routine of doodling and sketching, I might be came to come up with some clever graphics that can enhance my own stories of science. Students – how would you feel if science sketching was now a part of our classes?


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