Photograph by Jorge Reyna

Photography as a Reflective Tool in Science Education


by Jorge Reyna, Educational Designer working with the Faculty of Science at Macquarie University

Photography is more than a creative process

Photography is an exploration of light, colour, shape, texture, space, etc.  Composing images allows us to visualise possibilities, implications, applications and consequences. It fosters creativity and gives us the opportunity to have a closer look at objects, which we might otherwise not notice. It can also give us the opportunity to think deeply, hypothese, construct, deconstruct and reformulate ideas. Photography as a research tool has been under-appreciated and marginally used in the field of education and even less so in adult education (Taylor, 2002).

In my own experience, photography helps me to better understand nature and the world I live in, to appreciate diversity in society, capture special moments, share stories, experiences and inspirations and also stimulates my writing.

Photography is a form of art as teaching is in a way. The aim of teaching from my perspective is to trigger students’ positive emotions to  engage with their learning. This for me underpins good teaching practices and toward becoming an excellent teacher. So what does this mean from the learner perspective?

Letting students use photography to learn

The possibilities of using photography to learn about areas of science are numerous. For example, in botanic studies, taxonomic classification of plants can be challenging for students. Many scientific names and association of names with structures can be difficult for students to remember. So why not let students use their mobile devices to take pictures of plants and using the Instagram application, add comments and share with their peers. The beauty is that this can be done at their own time, location, etc.

In chemistry, when students are learning different types of chemical reactions, at home they can document with a picture chemical reactions, such as the classic eruption experiment mixing Diet Coke and Mentos. There are many resources on Google that students can find and experiment with.

In physics, for example, emissivity of the surface of a material is difficult to observe at room temperature as this light is in the infrared spectrum. Thanks to infrared cameras on mobile devices, students can explore this phenomenon. Additionally, many photo-editing applications have an infrared filter that can be used. These applications are not accurate but they can help students to understand and reinforce their understanding of the concept.

In marine ecology, students can explore underwater ecosystems and identify different species and see them in their habitats. They can use their mobile devices with a waterproof bag that can be bought cheaply. They can post it on Twitter to share and comment with the rest of their classmates and learn in a constructive manner.

In geology, students can identify different types of rocks in the field and share with their peers using the FlickR photosharing application. In cities and planning units, students can engage with concepts such: urban growth, densities and regeneration, housing, urban cultures, etc., exploring this using photography. These are just a few ideas. You know your discipline, I am sure you will come up with your own ideas.

Photography and achievement

Photography in this case is giving students the opportunity to reflect, reinforce and remember what they have learnt in the classroom. It could be a vehicle to link theoretical concepts with everyday life while having fun. These approaches can help them to apply higher order thinking processes, improve problem-solving skills, promote teamwork and collaboration and possibly be exposed to other ways of thinking. In this case, learning is happening alongside the classroom.

Things to consider before including a phographic task in your unit

Some important considerations to take into account: (1) Include a learning outcome in your unit about applying technology in the area of study; (2) Ensure students are aware of the reason for the task and what is the benefit to them; (3) Give students a choice of applications to work with, instead of imposing what they need to use. Of course, these applications need to support the platform you want them to share such as FlickR, Instagram, Twitter and so on; and (4) Last but not least, make sure the students have access to mobile devices.

Don’t forget to contact your Educational Designer to ask for support: