3 November 2014

Doodling in Science Class: Using Stick Figure Animations to Explain Complex Science at Stanford University (Videos)

Posted by mcadams


Emma Hutchinson discusses how climate change might impact the strongest wind system on Earth, and what that means for ocean circulation patterns in this Stanford University video. Traer partnered with Hutchinson to animate her story with white board drawings in the hopes of making it easier for the public to understand her complex research. Video courtesy of Stanford School of Earth Sciences.

By Miles Traer

From my time as an undergrad at the University of California at Berkeley to my time as a graduate student at Stanford University, I doodled in class. When the professor would say something amusing, I would turn it into a cartoon. I’d personify the rock or tectonic process – I’m a geologist after all – and create a character that stuck in my memory. So when I was asked by Stanford’s School of Earth Sciences to communicate complex climate science this summer, naturally I turned to cartoons.

Recently, I worked with two Stanford undergraduates in the School of Earth Sciences, Emma Hutchinson and Mary Cirino, who spent the summer researching Earth’s climate history in Professor Rob Dunbar’s lab. Our goal was to distill a summer’s worth of climate research into a short video for public consumption. Not being a climate scientist myself, my first reaction was, “This stuff is overwhelmingly complicated.”

But as I talked with Hutchinson and Cirino, I began to focus on the aspects of their research that most excited them. Hutchinson talked about how lake sediments extracted from southern Patagonia can help tell a bigger picture of climate and ocean circulation patterns. Cirino explained that the longest coral core in the world reveals climate conditions at monthly-resolution reaching back over 500 years.

I began to doodle.

As I learned more and continued to draw, I realized that turning these doodles into animations might help others grasp these tricky concepts too. I’ve found that cartoons are amazingly effective at capturing the complexities inherent in science while simultaneously making the subject matter more attainable to a broader audience. So we gave it a try.


In this video, Mary Cirino explains how paleoclimatologists use coral to extract temperature and salinity information and what that tells us about Earth’s “heat engine,” a region of the Pacific Ocean that drives some of the most important ocean and climate patterns on Earth. Video courtesy of Stanford School of Earth Sciences.

Hutchinson, Cirino, and I wrote the scripts first to create the story arc and provide the exciting scientific details. The students then read the scripts aloud while I drew cartoon representations of their research on a whiteboard. Frame by frame, we then turned those drawings into videos, using the students’ narrations to provide complexity and the cartoons to provide a visual simplification.

For example, Cirino’s explanation of how elemental isotopes reveal paleo-temperature and salinity conditions is balanced by drawings of cartoon corals and color-coordinated words like “Cold” and “Hot.” The audience doesn’t need to remember the specific elemental isotopes, but we want them to walk away knowing that elements can tell us about tangible things like temperature, rainfall, and ocean currents.

We also wanted to make sure that anyone who wants to know the scientific details as well could learn that the elemental isotopes were strontium, calcium, and oxygen.

The result was two videos, available on the Stanford Earth YouTube page, addressing the science behind the burning question, “What is the ‘normal’ state of Earth’s climate system?” To a public that is largely familiar with climate change, we want to provide a deeper-time perspective and help explain why a long-term record of Earth’s climate is vital for any long-term solutions.

After all, without knowing the normal state, it’s pretty difficult to project what will be different in a globally warmed world.

As we finished the scripts and finalized the drawings, we focused more and more on the excitement in the details rather than the sometimes daunting and depressing nature of climate change. By breaking the larger problem of climate change into these more digestible nuggets, we found it easier to add levity to the conversations in the form of stick figures guzzling ocean soda, cantankerous corallites, and young scientists demanding ALL the data.

Miles Traer has been using cartoons to help understand and explain complex science since his undergraduate days, when he first started doodling on his notes. Here, he compares positive and negative buoyancy. Photo courtesy of Miles Traer, Stanford School of Earth Sciences.

Miles Traer has been using cartoons to help understand and explain complex science since his undergraduate days, when he first started doodling on his notes. Here, he compares positive and negative buoyancy. Photo courtesy of Miles Traer, Stanford School of Earth Sciences.

We tried to walk the line between science and simplicity, to create a combination of images and text that was easy to remember and easy to share. While not as robust as a published research paper, we tried to provide something that went a little deeper into the science balanced by the occasional joke.

And really, who doesn’t like stick figure scientists tackling global problems?

Emma Hutchinson and Mary Cirino conducted this research as part of the Stanford School of Earth Sciences Summer Undergraduate Research (SESUR) program. The program aims to expose students to the breadth and depth of scientific studies provided in the Earth sciences by pairing undergraduates with faculty and graduate student mentors for a summer of hands-on research. Students in the program explored a wide range of topics, including the health of the oceans around Antarctica, earthquake detectability and induced seismicity, the dynamics of glaciers and ice sheets, food systems in drought-prone regions, and how soil types might affect carbon sequestration projects among many others.

– Miles Traer is a multimedia producer at Stanford’s School of Earth Sciences. Traer also co-created the Generation Anthropocene podcast with Michael Osborne to tell stories about our changing planet.