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Harnessing interactive visualizations to improve K-12 science instruction

Researcher: Kelly Ryoo
chemistry image

Bridging language barriers with visualizations

Kihyun “Kelly” Ryoo embarked on her research journey informed by her own experience. A native of South Korea, Ryoo faced a struggle during graduate school at Stanford University. While earning her master’s and doctorate degrees, she worked to create online learning materials for pre-med students. Having majored in health education in Korea, she knew the concepts being taught. But learning the technical scientific terminology was a new barrier.

It’s an insight that drove Ryoo’s initial research as she worked to develop and evaluate instructional plans and technology that support teaching scientific phenomena and concepts before introducing the vocabulary that defines or describes them.

The Edge
Interactive visualizations have been shown to be effective in three-dimensional science learning because the technology facilitates the learning of scientific concepts and ideas while also encouraging students to engage in science practices, such as talking with each about their learning, their hypotheses and their findings. Kihyun “Kelly” Ryoo, supported by a National Science Foundation CAREER grant, is working to explore how the technology can be used to improve learning of science among all students, including English learners (ELs). There’s a large achievement gap in the sciences between ELs and native English speakers, or non-English learners (non-ELs). As the EL population across the United States continues to expand, schools need effective methods to teach ELs, including meeting the new science standards.

As a doctoral student at Stanford, Ryoo worked with Bryan Brown, an associate professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, using web-based software to teach students with a “content-first” approach, allowing students to first gain an everyday language understanding of phenomena before transitioning to the use of scientific language and vocabulary. The study involved 49 minority students who were randomly assigned into two groups for analysis: a treatment group (taught with everyday language prior to using scientific language) and a control group (taught with scientific language). Using a pretest–posttest control group design, they assessed students’ conceptual and linguistic understanding of photosynthesis. The results indicated that students taught with the “content-first” approach developed significantly improved understanding when compared to students taught in traditional ways.

A paper Brown and Ryoo co-authored from the study – “Teaching Science as a Language: A ‘Content-First’ Approach to Science Teaching” – won the 2009 Journal of Research in Science Teaching Award. (Brown & Ryoo, 2008)

At Carolina’s School of Education, Ryoo has built from that research, further developing and evaluating visualization technologies to teach science to middle school students. Supplementing or replacing lectures by teachers, the interactive visualization technologies – which include web-based animations, simulations, and models – are designed to be engage students, allowing them to manipulate the animations that illustrate complex scientific phenomena, such as how energy and matter are involved in photosynthesis and cellular respiration. Prompts within the animations ask students to generate their own explanations for phenomena. The animations give instant feedback as students make choices within the animations.

Ryoo has found that when working in groups with the animations, students readily discuss their ideas, a key objective of the research.

Incorporating visualization technologies into EL instruction, three-dimensional science

Researchers across the country are developing assessments, curriculum materials, and new technologies to help students and teachers engage in Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) practices.

Ryoo has focused her work on using technology to develop those types of materials specifically for English learners (ELs), and do so in ways that also benefit native English speakers, or non-English learners (non-ELs).

Ryoo won a prestigious National Science Foundation Early Career Development Grant in 2016 to support and extend her work. The five-year grant is being used to fund research in which Ryoo works with eighth grade science teachers to improve their instruction for ELs through the use of visualization-rich inquiry projects and instruction.

Ryoo’s most recent work examines the short-term and long-term effects of using visualization technologies to promote NGSS-aligned science learning for eighth grade ELs and students whose first language is English, called non-ELs. In this study, the ELs are students in mainstream classes who speak another language at home but are fluent in conversational English.

This study involves four low-income schools, six science teachers, one ESL teacher and four units of inquiry. In the first year, she and her team have designed lesson plans and technology that covers two units of inquiry on chemistry. The second year will cover two units on life science. During the third and fourth year, all four units will be implemented, and the fifth year will focus on developing and refining the materials for teachers.

For this study, Ryoo’s main questions include

  • What are the immediate effects of visualization-rich inquiry units on ELs’ and non-ELs’ science learning?
  • What are the long-term effects of such units on ELs’ and non-ELs’ delayed learning after three months?
  • Are there any differences between ELs and non-ELs in their science learning after engaging in such units?

The Technology

With Ryoo’s technology, normally unobservable scientific phenomena are animated on tablets or computers – such as an illustration of molecular properties and animating the continuous motion of atoms and molecules over time.

Developing the visualization software involved multiple design cycles. To begin, Ryoo and her colleagues tested a pilot group of eight graders on their understanding of energy and matter in chemistry, particularly properties of matter and chemical reactions. The researchers assessed students’ prior ideas about energy and matter in chemistry, and used the wide range of student naïve conceptions they identified to align the intervention with energy and matter science concepts included in the NGSS and North Carolina standards.

After honing in on the target concepts, Ryoo and her colleagues met with all the teachers involved in the study to design and refine their visualization technology and web-based inquiry-curriculum materials. The big questions: do the visualizations properly address their students’ naïve or misconceptions? How can visualizations be incorporated into a scaffold structure to engage all students in discourse-rich science practices (such as generating evidence-based arguments)?

To answer these questions, Ryoo and her team focused on how to guide students’ learning with visualizations, such as what types of prompts should be used (e.g., explanations, claim-evidence-reasoning) to help students understand the target concepts while interacting with visualizations.

This project targeted all students in the classroom with varying levels of English proficiency. Ryoo and her colleagues made revisions based on the feedback they received from teachers. After multiple design cycles, the end product for this particular study includes two units in chemistry. Next year, Ryoo and her colleagues will repeat the process to produce two more units, for a total four projects.

In the Classroom

Simply handing technology over to the students is not effective, Ryoo has found. Discussion and engaging prompts, as well as carefully designed scaffolds, are crucial. While all the curriculum materials Ryoo developed are online, she worked closely with her participant teachers to ensure each lesson included appropriate discussion.

One of Ryoo’s main goals is to have the students use language to make sense of science. Her earlier research shows that pairing ELs with non-ELs increases comprehension and participation in scientific discourse as the students talk about their understandings of what they are studying.

Students who are learning English have the opportunity to listen to their peers describe science in that language. Ryoo’s earlier work also shows that when they work together with non-ELs using scaffolded visualizations, ELs are engaged in more scientific discourse, engaging in the practice of science.

To cover Ryoo’s unit, the teacher begins the class with an opener, and then students work in pairs using one computer. Each unit includes a different scientific inquiry and series of steps. Teachers can initiate small group discussions or big group discussions depending on how they want to teach the class.

The students begin with making a prediction about the target concept. They explore the visualizations, and then they engage in the same questions. The visualization prompts each student to make a claim, and use evidence from the visualization to support that claim.

What comes next

After completing one unit, the results of Ryoo’s study shows that ELs and non-ELs showed significant improvement in their understanding on both the post-test and subsequent delayed test of the target concepts.

In addition to the benefits of using visualizations to engage and improve proficiency in the sciences among all students, Ryoo’s technology also makes high-quality science teaching tools available to schools with minimal resources.

All of the schools in Ryoo’s study are Title One low-income schools, with little or no access to the kind of technology that can align their curriculum with the expectations set forth by NGSS. One of Ryoo’s main objectives with this work it to make her high-quality curriculum materials widely available.

At the end of the project, all the materials will be posted online so that any science teacher in the country can access them for free.

Ryoo’s work demonstrates that rigorous inquiry-based instruction with carefully scaffolded visualization technologies engages all students in science practices and improving their understandings of complex scientific phenomena, while also closing English learners’ achievement gaps in middle grades science.


  • Ryoo, K., & Linn, M.C. (2016). Designing automated guidance for concept diagrams in inquiry instruction. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 53(7), 1003-1035.
  • Ryoo, K. (2015). Teaching science through the language of students in technology-enhanced instruction. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 24(1), 29-42.
  • Ryoo, K. & Linn, M.C. (2012). Can Dynamic Visualizations Improve Middle School Students’ Understanding of Energy in Photosynthesis? Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 49(2), 218-243.
  • Ryoo, K., & Linn, M.C. (2014). Designing guidance for interpreting dynamic visualizations: Generating vs. reading explanations. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 51(2),147-174. (selected as the 2015 NSTA’s Research Worth Reading)
  • Brown, B. & Ryoo, K. (2008). Teaching Science as a Language: A “Content-First” Approach to Science Teaching. Journal of Research in Science Teaching,45(5), 529-553. (received the Journal of Research in Science Teaching Award)