Visual Models

Creating Visual Models for Learning  -Megan Dobro

For the art-inclined student, the idea of creating a physical model is exciting. For others, there will be eye rolling and memories of gluing fingers together. Here are some ways I’ve found models to really facilitate learning for all types of students this semester:

Physical Models:

In my Virology class, students choose a “pet virus” that they will study in depth for the semester. The first assignment is to create a physical model of their virus. I have no artistic requirements; it just needs to be accurate. I give ideas such as using clay, paper mache, found objects, or origami using online guides. Students present their models to the class and show how they represented the virus’s symmetry, structural components, and maybe dynamic processes. On one level, students now have a model of their virus to keep on their bookshelf and give them inspiration while writing their papers. Viruses are so cool looking, so roommates and passersby stop and ask about them, sparking continued learning. Some students donated their models to be displayed outside my office, and I’ve found more than one tour group stopping to play with them. One student even made a glass Marburg virus! But more important than the product, the process of creating a seemingly silly model got students to think more deeply. Looking only at two-dimensional pictures of viruses, students may not have realized that the viral shell has a complex, beautiful symmetry. Or that there are specific ways each viral component fits together, and that tells you something about which pieces rely on each other. Or that viruses are relatively simple particles and it’s amazing they wreak so much havoc on the world. Students spend 15 seconds looking at a picture and then move on. But in the process of making a virus, they take time with their virus, studying all of the shapes and possible ways it can be built and taken apart. They start to ask questions that introduce advanced concepts. And frankly, it’s the necessary “bonding” a student needs at the beginning of a whole semester with their virus. The results of this year’s class can be seen at

Stop Motion Animation:

Using iPads borrowed from IT (see Asha Kinney), students illustrated how a piece of the immune system works. They were assigned videos to learn about the immune system before class, and in class were given clay, white board markers, and construction paper. Groups used the free Stop Motion Studio app to take sequential pictures as they moved various components to illustrate a process. I needed them to have a very solid working knowledge of the immune system before we could talk about how viruses evade those defenses, and passive learning wasn’t going to be enough. Students had a blast and were amazed that they could make a video in just one class period. The rush to beat the clock added fun intensity. The next day we shared the videos as the groups narrated, and all together the videos completed the whole immune response. Now we refer to them when we discuss viral immune evasion and they say, “oh yeah, the little pink guy with googly eyes.” Pictures of the process are posted here: and the videos: