Using Technology to Support Struggling Students: Visualization, Representation and Modeling

Science learning often involves creating abstract representations and models of processes that we are unable to observe with the naked eye. Learn more about visualizing, representing, and modeling to aid struggling learners.

In an increasingly complex world, all students need to be scientifically literate. While some students may go on to pursue advanced careers in the sciences, basic scientific literacy is critical for all students. All students need to understand what it means to think like a scientist, and how to evaluate information that is called "scientific". Many of the careers of the future will require that students have the ability to collaborate and solve problems using STEM skills. Struggling students are no exception — they will need the same types of knowledge and skills, and will often require additional supports to be successful.

Research has shown that the most meaningful learning happens when students are engaged in authentic activities that ask them to think and behave like chemists, computer programmers, mathematicians, engineers or archeologists — that is, when they are engaged in activities that mirror the real-life tasks of STEM professionals.[i] These activities might include the use of virtual environments and simulations, developing models of scientific phenomena, and using collaborative tools like email, video conferencing, and classroom wikis. These types of activities can present new challenges for struggling students and students with disabilities. In this series of science info briefs, Using Technology to Support Struggling Students in Science, we'll examine five different dimensions of science learning, the areas that may be challenging for struggling students, and how technology tools may help.

Visualizations, representation and modeling

Science learning often involves creating abstract representations and models of processes that we are unable to observe with the naked eye. For example, chemistry texts often use images to represent atoms and molecules, and the processes and changes in them. Because these reactions occur at a very small scale and are difficult to observe, we must use visualizations and representations to help us understand what is occurring. Likewise, we use models and graphics to represent natural processes such as the carbon cycle, which occur over long periods of time and are similarly difficult to observe. Static figures — illustrations, diagrams and images — provide students with opportunities to see relationships in ways that language alone cannot express.

An important component of scientific learning is the ability to "mentally transform 2-D objects into dynamic 3-D objects"[ii], which can be challenging for many students, particularly those with learning or cognitive difficulties.[iii] Additionally, for students with cognitive or visual impairments, the critical information contained in the representations may be inaccessible if presented in a traditional textbook (i.e. text and static graphics).

Students can benefit from creating their own models, using both high and low-tech solutions. When students create models, they are making representations of their world, often based on their knowledge, or on data that they have collected, which encourages them to demonstrate and deepen their understanding of the concepts.[iv] While the physical aspects of creating models and visual representations may present some challenges for students with disabilities, the basic concepts of modeling can be made accessible to a variety of students. For example, a food web is used to reason about relationships between consumers and producers and to understand the impacts of various ecological changes. The food web can be represented as a web or as a table without losing meaning, making it accessible to students using screen readers to access text.

Educational and assistive technologies can make a difference by giving students ways to access and engage in visual representations and modeling using these materials:

  • Universally designed instructional materials
  • Materials using the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS)

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) materials

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) recommends that concepts be presented with multiple means of representation, action and engagement. [v] This helps to ensure that students with perceptual disabilities are not limited to one modality (i.e. visual information) to access critical content information. It also gives students opportunities to engage with tasks such as modeling by using the methods that are most appropriate for their abilities instead of limiting them to only a visual representation.

The National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS)

The NIMAS standard is used to provide instructional materials to a central repository (the National Instructional Materials Access Center or NIMAC) in a flexible, uniform manner. From the repository, these materials can be made into alternative, accessible formats (i.e. Braille, large print, audio, digital). Publishers provide textbooks and other instructional materials, including workbooks, to the NIMAC in digital form. Requesting organizations in each state then use the files to create accessible products. These files are also available to students who are using technologies on personal computers or special devices that can read NIMAS files.

Implications for educators

To accommodate struggling students for whom visualization and modeling may be challenging, teachers can consider the following:

  • Look for technological resources in the media center and on the Internet that can expose students to more ways of representing the phenomena they are studying.
  • Ensure that students understand that scientific visualization and modeling are more than graphical and visual approaches.
  • Encourage students to discuss and critique some of the approaches to models in textbooks. Ask them why conventions in a particular book or website are used.
  • Search the TechMatrix for tools that are compatible with the NIMAS standard and for curricula built using UDL.
  • Consider incorporating the resources listed below into your science curriculum.

Technology resources

NASA Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio
The mission of the Scientific Visualization Studio is to facilitate scientific inquiry and outreach within NASA programs through visualization. To that end, the SVS works closely with scientists in the creation of visualization products, systems, and processes in order to promote a greater understanding of Earth and Space Science research activities. Access a wide variety of visualizations of scientific phenomena, from narrated animations of the water cycle to videos detailing how researchers track hurricanes. Some visualizations are closed captioned.

NASA Earth+
Earth+ makes NASA satellite photos and data accessible to blind students. The Earth+ software allows blind students to navigate around a picture and "see" it using audio cues about the features in the picture.

The Periodic Table of Videos
Scientists at the University of Nottingham have created a number of fun and engaging videos on various topics in chemistry, including videos illustrating each of the 118 chemical elements on the periodic table. Many of the videos are closed captioned and available with subtitles in a variety of languages.

Stellarium is a free open source planetarium program. It shows a realistic sky in 3D, just like what you see with the naked eye, binoculars, or a telescope.

MathMol is designed to serve as an introductory starting point for those interested in the field of molecular modeling. Page features links to various tutorials and free online tools for molecular modeling.

Encylopedia Galactica
Encyclopedia Galactica is a freeware planetarium program that allows the creation of different types of sky maps in which practically any element is customizable.


Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

[i] Herrington, J., & Kervin, L. (2007). Authentic learning supported by technology: Ten suggestions and cases of integration in classrooms. Educational Media International, 44(3), 219-236.; Tan, S. C., Yeo, A. C. J., & Lim, W. Y. (2005). Changing epistemology of science learning through inquiry with computer-supported collaborative learning. Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching, 24(4), 367-386.

[ii] Barnett, M., Yamagata-Lynch, L., Keating, T., Barab, S. A., & Hay, K. E. (2005). Using virtual reality computer models to support student understanding of astronomical concepts. Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching, 24(4), 333-356.

[iii] Dalton, B., Morocco, C. C., Tivnan, T., & Rawson Mead, P. L. (1997). Supported inquiry science: Teaching for conceptual change in urban and suburban science classrooms. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 30(6), 670-684.

[iv] Lehrer, R., & Schauble, L. (2000). The development of model-based reasoning. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 21(1), 39-48.; DiSessa, A. (2005). Metarepresentation: Native competence and targets for instruction. Cognition and Instruction, 22(3), 293-331.

[v] Meyer, A., & Rose, D. H. (2002). Teaching every student in the digital age: Universal design for learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

National Center for Technology Innovation (2010)


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