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10 Jun 2022

Refining the teaching tools by creating better scientific animations

Research into visual scientific communication offers new insights into how to design the best visual aids to help teachers teach science.

Kate Patterson

Posters that line the walls of science classrooms are important communication tools that help make complex subjects more easily understood, approachable and recognisable. Technologies that enable 3D digital animations take this concept much further; however, there still remain barriers to their effective implementation. A new study led by the Garvan Institute of Medical Research has shown how scientific visual aids such as animations can be better designed for teachers, and used to potentially improve students’ learning experience.

Dr Kate Patterson, Senior Visual Science Communication Officer at the Garvan Institute, led the new study published in Trends In Genetics to better understand how 3D scientific animations are used in the classroom and how their design can be improved so that teachers can more effectively utilise these as teaching tools to explain complex genomic processes.

In collaboration with the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, Dr Patterson and her colleagues hosted workshops with teachers to investigate their approaches and assess their needs when using animations in the classroom. The teachers were asked to create their own personalised videos for their classrooms using existing 3D animations, including some developed at Garvan, and free video editing tools with technical support from Dr Patterson.

The team combined learnings from the videos and the teachers’ planning and reflection documents, along with Dr Patterson’s own experience designing molecular animations, to develop design principles for the production of animations and other visual materials that are effective learning tools.

“By working closely with teachers to understand their needs, and how they utilise visual materials in their classrooms, we developed informed design guidelines from the perspective of the animator that may help teachers, scientists and other science communicators to effectively convey scientific concepts to their respective audiences and communicators.” says Dr Patterson.

Art vs science

The scientific animator has to balance scientific accuracy with artistic licence to ensure the animations are engaging and that key concepts of the processes being taught are captured and highlighted accurately using different visual storytelling techniques, says Dr Patterson.

The findings of this study include a set of nine recommendations scientific animators can follow to ensure their work strikes the appropriate balance, such as including the right amount of detail without overloading or confusing students, and using aesthetic principles without oversimplifying or detracting from the scientific concept.

Design guidelines:

  1. Balance accuracy and artistry.
  2. Create materials that are accessible by a broad audience.
  3. Include natural chaos and complexity in the aesthetic style.
  4. Animations should consider the principles of multimedia learning.
  5. Animations need to have natural pauses.
  6. Embed credibility into the materials.
  7. Create materials as one full asset as well as additional bite-sized pieces.
  8. Show rather than tell.
  9. Consider pre-identified challenges and concepts through a collaborative design process when possible.

Updating and expanding practice

Dr Patterson says that, as a result of actively participating in the teacher workshops that informed this study, her creative practice as an author and animator has changed.

“The audience-centric design approach has shifted from a focus on students as the end user, to the teachers who are required to effectively implement the animations in the classroom.

“By engaging with teachers and other facilitators of scientific learning, animators can gain a better understanding of the students’ needs and the unique requirements of different student cohorts and syllabuses.”

Key measures such as including natural pauses in the animation and creating related visual aids such as shorter scenes and still images also gives teachers the freedom to tailor the materials to their own classes’ learning speed and style.

Dr Patterson believes these guidelines could also be used in other fields of scientific communication.

“These communication principles could also have applications beyond animations and could be applied to communication of scientific information in non-classroom contexts and where the scientific information is provided by a doctor to a patient for example or by scientists via journalists to general public audiences.”


This project received seed funding from the Garvan-Weizmann Joint Research Program at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research and Weizmann Institute of Science.

Dr Kate Patterson is a Conjoint Senior Lecturer at UNSW Sydney