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Learning by Seeing: Fun Visualization Tools That Educate

Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant
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One recent morning, I sat in the window seat on a flight home from foggy Atlanta, Georgia, to Maine. As we gained speed heading down the runway, I watched the wing and noted the fully extended flaps. As soon as we lifted off and entered the fog layer some 20 feet up, an intense cloud rolled off the upper surface of the wing. When I saw this phenomenon in action, I immediately thought, "A-ha! Bernoulli's principle!"

The shape of an airfoil (especially when the flaps are extended to exaggerate the airfoil) is such that the air moving across its upper surface has to go a greater distance, and, therefore, faster. This creates a reduction in the air pressure on the upper surface, and allows the relatively greater pressure below the wing to lift the plane into the air.

The roiling cloud I witnessed was the moisture being squeezed out of the damp, foggy air moving across the top of the airfoil and becoming compressed like a sponge, thus leaving less room for water molecules. It was fascinating to see it happen, and even better that I could recall my understanding of Bernoulli's principle -- something I had not thought about in years.

Like the real-world example above, following are a few of my favorite Web-based resources to help teachers explain -- and get their students to understand -- complex topics in new ways:

  • provides a comprehensive collection of tools for teaching science. The site offers several areas to visit, and specific tools for each are organized by grade level. is a collaborative project of the Central Bucks School District, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, including curriculum coordinator George Mehler and district teachers, and the College of Education at Philadelphia's Temple University. Don't miss the Tools of Science section!
  • From the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance, PRISMS (Phenomena and Representations for the Instruction of Science in Middle Schools) is a resource, as the site states, of "reviewed phenomena and representations" for middle school teachers and students. Another great collection of science visualizations!
  • Utah State University's National Library of Virtual Manipulatives offers classic classroom materials such as tangrams, geoboards, and more. Check out the Algebra Balance Scales, for grades 6-8 and 9-12. I've had so many teachers tell me, "If only I had had this resource when I was in school!"
  • CSERD (Computational Science Education Reference Desk), a Pathways project of the National Science Digital Library, brings us Project Interactivate and its collection of middle school-based mathematics tools. Be sure to check out the Discussions -- they're like a reader's theater for math!
  • The Visuwords online graphical dictionary uses Princeton University's WordNet, an open source database created by university students and language researchers. You have to play around on this site to learn how to maximize what it offers. It is color coded; floating your cursor over any word delivers a definition. How about asking students to put their vocabulary words in and see what comes up?
  • Ricci Adams's gets you started with a choice of Lessons, Trainers, or Utilities. I'm not a musician (just ask my family), but I like the way this site helps me better understand the language of music. Check out the pop-up piano!
  • Playing with Time takes a look at how the world changes over a given period. This collaboration between Red Hill Studios and the Science Museum of Minnesota allows you to view time sped up and slowed down, and offers activities and collaborative projects that illustrate just how complex time really is.
  • Powers of Ten, from the Eames Office (a gallery and store devoted to the works of designers Charles and Ray Eames), is where you'll find the classic Powers of 10 film and so much more to help teachers and students alike better understand scientific notation. (That whole exponential-growth thing can be a real head-shaker!)
  • NetLogo, developed by Northwestern University computer scientist Uri Wilensky, is a great free, downloadable tool for visualizing complexities -- everything from forest fires and predator-prey relationships to HIV.

I'd be interested to know what you think of these sites, and if you know of others, please share!

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Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant

Comments (24) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Elizabeth's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love these websites. I teach elementary computer applications. I can see where these will be helpful to my lessons and I will definately pass these along to my classroom teachers. Thanks for compiling this list.

J.R. Moulton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

OK, now. Lots of folks saying they "like these links," but Bonnie was the only one who "added one," by suggesting

So, come on now, what are your favorites. I know you have them! Bonnie and I can't be the only ones...


Jim Moulton

Rachel Chamberlain's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think this is a great discussion. I feel that it is really important that you use visualization whenever possible in the lessons taught during the day. I know that no matter what subject you are teaching you can use some type of visual to help students have a better understanding. I have experience with this right now as I am a permanent substitute for a teacher one day a week for this school year. She has a couple Spanish speaking students who are learning English and it helps to bring visuals into the lesson because they might not understand every word that I am saying, but they can look at what it is that I am asking them to do. I love visuals and will always use them even when I have my own classroom.

Jean Sullivant's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I've just spent the last two hours going through some of the sites you have listed. I really like a lot of them and plan either to use them with my students, or to pass them on to other teachers in my school. I particularly liked, PRISMS, and the National Library of Virtual Manipulatives.

I, too, had a hard time figuing out Visuword. I think using an online graphical dictionary is a wonderful way to learn about the many meanings, nuances, and interrelationships among words. But it was very hard to read, and I think my students would give up on it.

Today I discovered two interactive learning tools from the National Library of Medicine, which I might add to your list. The first is ToxTown,( is, according to NLM's fact sheet, "an interactive guide to commonly encountered toxic substances, your health, and the environment. Tox Town helps users explore a Port, Town, City, Farm, or US-Mexico Border community to identify common environmental hazards." This is geared toward high school students, while ToxMystery ( geared more toward elementary school students ages 7-9. It has some great animations and sound effects while also helping children find out about environmental health hazards -- especially toxic substances which they might find at home.

Jean Sullivant

Alison's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Great links. Thanks so much for all the time you put in to compiling this list. It will be extremely helpful in the classroom.

Andrea's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I liked your idea of using Visuwords as a way for students to explore vocabulary, especially because this method can be used in any subject area. Thanks for the resources. I will be sure to explore each more thoroughly.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I find that my students love internet learning whether they are in front of the computer, or I offer them interesting, challenging materials I have found on the web. Thanks for helping with these great sites! Candace Muetzel

Macy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have just recently started looking at teacher "blogs." I find yours the most interesting and helpful that I have seen thus far. Most blogs have been based on research, theory, and statistics versus actual tools that I can use in the classroom. As a previous fifth grade teacher, I can see the advantage of using these websites to enrich the classroom with technology and a better understanding through visual activities. I would like to know if anyone has ever come across a science website that would be beneficial for pre-kindergarten. I currently teach four and five year olds learners who are so curious about the world (much more than my fifth graders ever were) and I would love to show them some interesting websites that they could benefit from. I have two learners in my class that speak a small amount of English. I can see the benefit of being able to show them the type visuals I found on Thank you for your contribution to the blogging world!

Jim R. Moulton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Macy -

Your appreciation of "tools I can actually use in my classroom" resonates with my current thinking. I am constantly finding new resources, all are cool, but the best are those that are both cool and easily transferable to the real world of school. For the young children you are teaching, here are a couple more you might find useful for supporting their intellectual growth: is a great collection of QTVR (Quick Time Virtual Reality) images that can be great pieces to use to draw out expressive language. You can move around the images, looking from side to side, as well as up and down. You can also zoom in and out! Use a digital projector to put them on the big screen, and put the kids on the rug, and then talk about what you see! By the way, to learn more about digital projector use, see my post about projectors. This is a free piece of software that will read any text put into it. I have worked with young children like those you teach, and have seen them be more willing to work to put together a descriptive sentence because they want to hear the computer read it! Of course, if you are working on an Apple, the ability to read is built into the device already.

Have fun, and keep on trying new things, always looking to connect cool with effective!


Jim Moulton

Jake Johnson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Edutopia, what a great resource! I am the outreach coordinator at NASA Images ( I think it would be a great resource to add. If you would like to know more (anyone) feel free to contact me, thanks!


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