Where Art Meets Science

March 22, 2012 - Posted by LifeLearn

Images, Math, and Science, oh my!

Two trains are traveling towards the same station. Train A leaves its destination at 1 pm carrying 10 passengers and traveling at 100 km/hr.. Train B leaves its destination at 1:30 pm carrying 8 boxes of cargo and traveling at 80 km/hr. If Train A is 200 km from the station and Train B is 100 km from the station, which train will reach the station first?
Even as I read this math problem, I can feel my stress levels rising like they did when I was doing my math homework in elementary school.

It certainly wasn’t for lack of trying that I struggled with math. There were just too many trains, too many numbers, and at the time, I was convinced that I needed to use every number in the problem to solve for “x”.

“So if I multiply the time by the number of people’s bags, divide it by the 8 boxes of cargo and subtract 30 minutes, we can then take add the distances together and divide by two….”


Finally my parents tired of sitting around for hours with me waiting for the trains to arrive, started the mantra, “If you don’t understand it, draw a picture.” And so I did.


In fact, it was pictures that not only helped me pass elementary school math AND high school physics, but also prevented me from miscalculating the molarity of solutions in my university chemistry labs and blowing us all to kingdom come.

Why does drawing out problems help make the most complicated things easier to understand?

There are a couple of reasons. The first one is simple – I am a visual learner. Visual learners typically find pictures, graphs, and diagrams easier to understand than written text alone.

The second reason was one that I discovered while in grad school doing research on multimedia learning. As it turns out, the common school of thought in the field of cognitive sciences is that humans possess separate verbal and visual learning channels. Meaningful learning requires cognitive processing along both channels; however, each channel has a limited capacity. With different kinds of demands for cognitive processing, such as making sense of the presented words and images while holding necessary information in working memory, cognitive overload can occur. In such cases, information needs to be redistributed to make mental processing as efficient and effective as possible.

In my case, I was trying to process more than I was capable of all at once. By parceling out some of the information into an image, I was able to divert more of my processing power to solving the problem, rather than keeping the general scenario straight in my head.

It is very fitting that something that had been such an important factor in my educational career is now an integral part of my job at LifeLearn. And visualization like this works for more than just for math problems or medical concepts. Got a tricky phone call to make? Map out what needs to be said before the call so that you can focus on listening instead of holding your talking points on the tip of your tongue.

I’m still no math-guru but at least when a problem arises, I know how get to the solution instead of wasting time sorting train schedules and passengers.

And just in case you were wondering, Train B got there first. 🙂

About the author:
Desmond Ballance is a Project Manager with LifeLearn Inc, whose responsibilities include everything from project organization and content development to scientific illustration, interface design, and video shoot direction. In her non-working hours (which, as a mother of a toddler, are few and far between), she likes golfing with her husband, swimming at the cottage or curling up on the couch with a ball of yarn and some knitting needles.