Drawn to…conferences? How sketching can enhance your science conference experience

A version of this article is cross-posted on the ESA SciComm Section’s site.


Everyone can sketch. Even you.

And there are plenty of reasons why you should seriously consider trying it like I advocated for on www.crastina.se last month.

Researchers have demonstrated that drawing (even without training) can:

There is even evidence that collaboration between scientists and artists may result in better science.

WY scenes_sketch_p4_toad_clean_rs

This makes sense, because the history of science and art are closely intertwined.

Prior to the advent of cameras, scientific inquiry required drawing. The drawings and paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, Maria Sybilla Merian, John James Audubon, and the maps drawn by Samuel Champlain and Lewis & Clark were tools and data that drove scientific discoveries around the world.

Fast forward to the modern era – our understanding of the world back then would be impoverished had those scientists and citizens not made drawings. At the same time, we now collectively avoid sketching because drawing has become art, and art (like science) has become specialized.

And yet, drawing is not a domain exclusive to the pros.

After all, the curiosity, close observation, recording, and critical thinking required for drawing should seem quite familiar to any scientist.

This is exactly why I’ve been teaching ‘sketching for scientists’ as part of a science communication workshop at the Ecologial Society of America’s (ESA) annual meeting for the past two years. (Click here for details on this year’s workshop, coming up next week!)

I lead the workshop section on drawing and sketching, and participants have a blast doing blind contours, tracings, shadow tracings, and other basic drawing technique exercises in a roomful of fellow scientists and science communicators. We focus on observation over “art,” and build a drawing toolkit anyone can use – in the field, in the classroom, and for public engagement.

And there’s another venue where sketching can make science even more fun.

Conference relevance: Visual note taking (aka “sketchnoting”) isn’t just for artists

At last year’s ESA conference, in response to the drawing workshop, a handful of mountain ecology researchers launched a #sketchyourscience initiative that drew colorful responses from a host of researchers.

As I wrote at the time:

“Like Tweeting, but arguably more compelling (and perhaps more daunting), compressing your work into a single sketch is a true exercise in honing your multimedia multi-disciplinary SciComm skills.”

And, scientific sketchnotes aren’t exclusive to ESA conferences, either.

Right now, social media is awash with visual notes from other science conferences, and many of these sketches were inspired by an American Fisheries Society Fisheries magazine article penned by Natalie Sopinka (@phishdoc). Natalie’s article succinctly distills advice for making meaningful and satisfying sketchnotes from several science illustrators (including yours truly).

As another example, this week, the Wyoming Department of Education is hosting its annual “Roadmap to STEM” conference. There, I’ll be teaching science teachers in Wyoming how to incorporate drawing into their classrooms, and sketch notes will be one of the key activities/approaches I’ll suggest.

Try it yourself. Quick tips for sketching at a conference or meeting this summer:

  • Using only two complimentary colors (blue & orange) can make you look like you know what you’re doing! Sketched from conference exhibit (ballpoint pen & crayon)
    Using only two complimentary colors (blue & orange) can make you look like you know what you’re doing! Sketched from conference exhibit (ballpoint pen & crayon)

    Keep your supplies simple and portable. A ballpoint pen and one color (marker, colored pencil, even a crayon!) can produce delightful results.

  • Use frames to organize/design page layout. You can even set up your pages in advance, making frames for intro, main points, conclusion, key questions, etc.
  • Incorporate text into your sketches. Be sure to include your own questions and observations. Your personal “feedback” will make the sketches particularly interesting/valuable to you later.
  • Use only one spot/accent color. Realistic colors are hard to achieve quickly in a dark room. Instead, use color as a design device, to highlight key points or thought flows.
  • Using a quick sketch to capture the essence. Even if your sketch isn’t technically accurate, it will help you make or remember a point.
  • Think of yourself as a curator. Don’t try to capture everything, and don’t worry about what you should draw. Sketch what interests you.

Want to take sketching seriously? Here are a few resources for sketchnoting and drawing:

What doodling can do for your brain:

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