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K-State Today

April 13, 2016

Research communication program helps global food systems teams harness the power of visuals

Submitted by Sarah Caldwell Hancock

Global Food Systems researchers use Visual Thinking Strategies with works of art to enhance their understanding of how visuals convey meaning. Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, "Untitled (Wisdom/Knowledge)," from the Survival suite, 1996

An old saying asserts the worth of a picture in words. At a Global Food Systems presentation April 28, Kansas State University graduate student and postdoctoral researchers will use techniques they learned in a series of workshops designed to help them harness the power of images while communicating the significance of their work.

Global Food Systems, or GFS, research projects were funded through a seed grant program enabled by a Kansas Department of Commerce grant. The public is invited to hear about the multidisciplinary projects, which aim to meet the needs of an increasing world population while creating jobs in Kansas, at the GFS Research Science Communication Workshop at 2 p.m. Thursday, April 28, in the Beach Museum's UMB Theater. A keynote talk by National Geographic photo-essayist Jim Richardson will follow student presentations. Richardson will speak on the origins of agriculture, his current project for the magazine. Both events will highlight the importance of visual communication.

"Our land-grant mission makes communication with the general public an important part of K-State's work," said Linda Duke, director of the university's Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art.

Duke and collaborator Katie Kingery-Page, associate professor of landscape architecture, used a technique called visual thinking strategies, or VTS, in a series of workshops for GFS team members during the 2015-2016 school year. The strategy was developed by a former art educator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in collaboration with a cognitive psychologist to help teachers and children better retain information presented in the museum's educational programs by showing a piece of art and asking a deceptively simple question: "What's going on in this picture?"

During a visual thinking strategies session, a trained facilitator asks that question then prompts participants to explain what they see based on visual evidence, and others join the discussion with new observations and interpretations. The strategy is now being used by medical schools and nursing programs to enhance observation and diagnostic skills of future doctors and nurses. Instructors in other subject areas are finding it useful in the college classroom.

The objective isn't to get viewers to adopt one interpretation, but to observe closely and build on one another's ideas. Research in all fields proceeds similarly: scholars build on the work of others and make meaning through observation and experimentation. But scientists often hit a roadblock when they try to explain the importance of their findings to the public. Duke and Kingery-Page thought visual thinking strategies could help.

"We're not asking researchers to do VTS with audiences, but there's a deep concept here and a deep understanding of thinking and how people relate to expertise," Duke said.

"VTS requires an open-minded attentiveness to visual stimuli," Kingery-Page said. "It makes sense that practicing VTS would help prime the scientists in our workshops to patiently assess their own graphic communication. These scientists took on a challenge: distilling incredibly complex and specific research into a brief presentation for lay people." 

Global food systems researchers who participated in the workshops found them useful.

Caroline Ylioja, doctoral candidate in animal science and member of a team exploring RNA interference, said visual thinking strategies reinforce the principles of scientific inquiry.

"VTS encourages open-mindedness when looking for answers," Ylioja said. "The answer might not be obvious to you; you're thinking as a group and seeing how someone else sees a problem, and being able to build off of that is better than what one person could do alone. There might not be one clear answer — and that's part of science."

Visual thinking strategies also made Ylioja think about how audiences process visuals during presentations.

"In a classroom, if the presenter shows a picture or diagram while they're talking, and they're not directly explaining or asking about the image, I'm either looking at the image or listening to them talk," she said. "I'm not doing both. I learned that you can use an image as a focal point — I think I probably would use more images now when presenting research than I would have before."

Danny Unruh, doctoral student in food science and industry, agreed that experiencing visual thinking strategies helped him hone his own thinking and presentation skills.

"It helped me think about if I'm giving a presentation on our grant or to students, how can I communicate these ideas in different ways — more than just bulleted text or a bar chart," he said. "It taught me you can do a lot with imagery."

Unruh also noted that using visuals can help reach people who don't think the same way.

"When we're preparing a presentation or doing our work, we get used to seeing things or explaining things one way," he said. "We communicate to a lot of people and they might think of things differently; they don't live in the same academic world that we do. It keyed us into the world to help us think differently."

Duke said she could see the difference in the research presentations after students attended the workshops.

"I was delighted to see students using the concepts in their talks," Duke said. "They did find something useful. From what we've seen so far, they have made really smart choices about imagery."

Another advantage is helping researchers learn to speak to different audiences, which increases their ability to compete for external funding by writing more effective grant proposals.

"Audience sensitivity is important for grad students to learn," said Mary Lou Marino, development director with the university's Office of Research and Sponsored Programs. "When the students first came in, they probably would not have given the audience and how to present much thought. In the practice sessions, they listened to what we had to say about making it interesting to another audience."

The sponsors of the Research Communication Program include the Office of the Vice President for Research, the Prairie Studies Initiative, the Beach Museum of Art, the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional & Community Planning, and the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs.

Image: Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, born 1940, "Untitled (Wisdom/Knowledge)," from the Survival suite, 1996, color lithograph on paper, KSU, Beach Museum of Art, Friends of the Beach Museum of Art purchase, 2004.14.

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