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The Role of Visuals in Professional, Popular, and Pedagogic Science Report


Background Information

Visuals play an important role in science. Their use in this field can be traced back to the works of early scientists. The scholars emphasised on the importance of visual thinking (Martin & Veel, 2000). One of the best examples of a discovery arising from the use of visuals includes that of the benzene ring and the helical structure of DNA. The discovery was made by Friedrich.

The researcher first envisioned the benzene ring as a snake biting its own tail (Pajak, 2012). Even more vivid is Albert Einstein’s argument on how human reasoning envisages visual thinking. Common visual elements used in science include graphical illustrations, photographs, and drawings (Kress, 2012). The use of some of these elements is a common occurrence in other fields, such as cultural studies and media.

However, there is a clear distinction between their application in these fields and in science. In science, visual depiction of data is fundamental. It represents something different from the photographs and illustrations published and used in other disciplines.

In science, visual images do not simply accompany text. On the contrary, they organise meaning and invite the audience to interpret the presentation in a particular way (Kress, 2012).

Purpose and Significance of the Research

In spite of the extensive use of visual elements, little research has been conducted to investigate how they create meaning in different aspects and forms of science. The purpose of this paper is to provide a critical and in-depth look at the role that visuals play in science. Communicative functions and cultural meanings of elements that are conventionally used in science will be explored to achieve a better understanding of this concept.

To this end, the author will analyse how visual images are applied in presenting scientific data and findings. A comparison will be made between the application of visuals in relation to professional, popular, and pedagogic science.

Scope and Limitations

To conduct this study, the author will rely on readings from experienced discourse analysts and other researchers, such as Kress (2012), Miller (1998), and Lemke (1998). Special emphasis will be on the use of visuals in professional, popular, and pedagogic science. A comparative analysis of the application of these elements in the three sciences will be done to ascertain similarities and differences.

A Comparative Analysis of the Use of Visuals in Popular, Professional, and Pedagogic Science

Visuals in Popular Science

Popular science is also commonly referred to as pop science. It involves interpretation of science for the general public (Miller, 1998). It acts as a bridge between scientific literature as a professional medium of research and the realms of popular political and cultural discourse (Lemke, 1998). The goal of this genre of is to capture the accuracy of science and the veracity of the methods used in a friendly and accessible way.

In popular science, visuals are used playfully and with less intensity. The major focus is precision and accuracy. Graphic illustrations are less complex. In addition, visualisations used rarely invite the reader to reflect on the research presented (Trumbo, 1999).

Cartoons and artistic impressions are commonly used to achieve this. For instance, cartoons are used to bring discussions on science related controversies, such as biological determinism, to the public (Broks, 2006).

In popular science, visuals are directly affected by the topic of discussion. As such, the illustrations are a tribute to science or technology behind them (Broks, 2006). Common visuals used in popular science include graphs, photographs, illustrations, and verbal texts (Broks, 2006). Illustrations and photographs switch between a realistic and a more abstract modality.

Consequently, they take the reader from a familiar reality to a more abstract scientific knowledge (Darian, 2003). In popular science, visuals can also be used in a unique way to engage the general public directly. For instance, in 2001, scientists designed a game whose main aim was to allow the general public to design a three dimensional structure of proteins.

The game offered a visualisation of the complex scientific work carried out in the field of health. However, the presentation was fun and less complex (Darian, 2003).

Use of Visuals in Professional Science

Popular and professional sciences are closely related in terms of the issues they address. However, there is a significance variation between the two with regards to the use of visual imagery. Professional science is seen as a stress between originality and deference in a community (Darian, 2003). It is as a result of the language authors use to argue their claims.

Texts in this field are intended for professionals. The individuals have specialised skills in the field. The target is difference from that of popular science, which is the general public. Information in professional science is presented with considerable exactness.

There is also the use of foregrounding procedures and technical jargon (Lemke, 1998). Nominalisations, precise measurements, cautious inferences from data, and acronyms are also common (Darian, 2003).

Professional science largely makes use of such visuals as figures, tables, and graphs. There are no cartoons and games like it is the case in popular science. The visuals used in professional science offer the target audience a quick overview of the study findings (Martin & Veel, 2000).

Tables and graphs help scientists to present detailed results and complex relationships, patterns, and trends in a clear and concise manner (Trumbo, 1999). For instance, tables present data arising from research, while graphs show the relationship between variables.

Professional science also makes use of such visuals as photographs. The aim is to shorten manuscripts and enhance understanding of the issue. Figures are also used extensively to effectively capture and present findings (Pajak, 2012).

Role of Visuals in Pedagogic Science

Defining pedagogic science is a major challenge due to the limited research and literature in this field. In addition, the word is often adopted incorrectly as a sector-wide synonym for teaching and learning (Taber, 2014). However, most experts agree that pedagogy describes what happens between teachers and learners. Pedagogic science deals with the theory and practice of education (Taber, 2014).

It involves the study of best teaching practices. Its aims range from the achievement of general and liberal education to the narrower specifics of vocational education (Martin & Veel, 2000). Liberal education is mainly concerned with human development. On its part, vocational education involves acquisition of specific skills.

Liberal aspects of pedagogic science involve an analysis of the phenomena and processes associated with the upbringing and development processes of children and young people (Taber, 2014). In most cases, pedagogic science is used to refer to the art and science of teaching, educational, and instructional methods (Martin & Veel, 2000).

Visuals are of great importance to pedagogic science. The reason is that simple manipulation of these elements helps one to approach teaching and developmental processes from different perspectives. To this end, visuals are used to help learners understand patterns and relationships between variables (Martin & Veel, 2000).

There are various visuals in pedagogic science. They include graphs and diagrams. Such visuals as images help learners to see how ideas are connected. They help them realise how information can be grouped and organised effectively. Diagrams and plots are also used to display large volumes of data (Martin & Veel, 2000).

When used in pedagogic science, visuals strengthen the classification of techno-scientific knowledge (Martin & Veel, 2000). As such, they shepherd the viewers to more specialised forms of scientific knowledge. In addition, pedagogic science exposes readers to highly stylised and abstract forms of visuals.

The aim is to familiarise them with the usual scientific practice of probing deeper and past the surface characteristics of various entities (Martin & Veel, 2000).

Comparing the use of Visuals in Professional, Popular, and Pedagogic Science


There are various similarities and differences in the use of visuals in the three sciences. Most of the differences arise from the variations in the roles played by the three. For instance, popular science is intended for a ‘lay’ audience without a professional need for knowledge.

The target audience aspires to keep in touch with scientific developments from a conventional pedestal (Martin & Veel, 2000). Consequently, visuals are used in popular science to interpret academic activities. The focus is on the interests, beliefs, and preoccupations of a new readership.

The case is different in professional science. Here, visuals aim at persuading specialists about the reliability of interpretations and the rigor of methods used in research (Kress, 2012). Most popular discourse analysts claim that the differences between the two sciences are more apparent in illustrations than in verbal texts (Broks, 2006). Broks (2006) gives the example of an article highlighting the lifecycle of lizards and snakes.

The article was written by two authors. The first version was meant for a popular audience, while the other targeted professionals. In the professional article, the writers used more graphs showing cycles of various hormones and fewer pictures of the snakes and lizards. The aim was to draw the attention of the reader towards the actual research work.

On the other side, the popular article included few pictures showing sperms in the testicles and little snakes growing in their eggs before hatching. According to experienced discourse scientists, such illustrations are meant to help a non-specialist reader visualise what the stages mean. The visuals in this case draw the attention of the reader towards the organisms and away from the intended concept of cycles (Broks, 2006).

Use of visuals in pedagogic science is different from that in professional and popular fields. The reason is that visuals are used for learning purposes.

Pedagogic science also exposes readers to abstract forms of visuals. The objective is to make the learner familiar with the usual scientific practice of probing deeper into phenomena. Such probing is what helps in achieving learning (Darian, 2003).


Similarities between the three sciences with regards to the use of visuals are many. To start with, the elements have been used in human communication since the start of recorded time (Darian, 2003). In addition, some philologists argue that all writing is basically pictorial and representational in nature.

With regards to this, it is noted that articles in all the three sciences apply visuals in form of a mixture of verbal texts, graphs, and images. The use is regardless of whether the visuals are photographs (as commonly used in professional science) or naturalistic illustrations, drawings, and paintings [which are common in popular and pedagogic sciences] (Darian, 2003).

Another common similarity with regards to visuals in the three fields is that they are used to portray science and science related issues. They encourage the audience to participate by asking scientific questions (Heywood & Parker, 2010). Application of images in popular and pedagogic sciences is also similar to some extent (Darian, 2003). The latter often makes use of visual images from the former.

The images used are characterised by ‘low content specialisation’. They are also associated with ‘low formality’. The objective is to help learners interpret abstract and conventional images. The visuals are then integrated to give a global interpretation of materials (Clark & Mayer, 2011).

Similarly, popular science makes use of visuals from professional science. However, the elements are slightly modified to appeal to the target audience. Consequently, it appears that there is a modification of visuals in all the three sciences. The alteration is used to effectively address the needs of the target audience (Darian, 2003).


It is clear that visuals play an important role in science. Scientific work would have little or no meaning without these applications. As illustrated in this paper, visuals are a common occurrence in pedagogic, popular, and professional sciences.

A comparative analysis of the use of these elements in the three fields led to interesting findings. For example, the phenomena are manipulated, modified, and applied to infer different results and to attract the attention of the audience.


Broks, P. (2006). Understanding popular science. Maidenhead, England: Open University Press.

Clark, R., & Mayer, R. (2011). E-learning and the science of instruction. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

Darian, S. (2003). Understanding the language of science. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Heywood, D., & Parker, J. (2010). The pedagogy of physical science. Dordrecht: Springer.

Kress, G. (2012). Multimodality: Challenges to thinking about language. TESOL Quarterly, 34(2), 337-340.

Lemke, J. (1998). Multiplying meaning: Visual and verbal semiotics in scientific text. In J. Martin & R. Veel (Eds), Reading science: Critical and functional perspectives on discourse of science, (pp. 87-113). New York: Routledge.

Martin, J., & Veel, R. (2000). Reading science: Critical and functional perspectives on discourses of science. New York: Free Press.

Miller, T. (1998). Visual persuasion: A comparison of visuals in academic texts and the popular press. English for Specific Purposes, 17(1), 29-46.

Pajak, Z. (2012). Picture this, imagine that. Corvallis, Oregon. Oregon State University.

Taber, K. (2014). Understanding and developing science teacher’s pedagogic content knowledge. Teacher Development, 18(3), 441-444.

Trumbo, J. (1999). Visual literacy and science communication. Science Communication, 20(4), 409-425.

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NicoMinoru. (2019) 'The Role of Visuals in Professional, Popular, and Pedagogic Science'. IvyPanda, 24 June.

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