Visual literacy skills for STEAM innovation

‘The greatest scientists are artists as well’ – Albert Einstein

Kylie Lawrence, one of three teacher librarians at Hunter Valley Grammar School, explores motives and opportunities for incorporating visual literacy in STEAM learning.


Visual literacy skills play a vital role in enhancing learning and innovation. Why? Because the digital world is a visual world. To construct knowledge and to innovate, we must be able to visualise since most information is initially processed through our eyes. As STEAM specialist, Kate Mason (2016) argues, ‘visual literacy is a mode of thinking that helps us understand and navigate the world around us and is a vital tool in an increasingly visual and digital age’.

Globally, the rise of visual content reflects our physiological thirst for imagery and visual knowledge. In schools, the need for visual assets in teaching continues to transform the educational landscape, with students using images, infographics, video-based instruction, flowcharts, drawings, models, visual programming languages, and virtual reality apps to support learning across all disciplines. As a result, it is necessary for educators to rethink traditional understandings of literacy.

Literacy, visual literacy and STEAM

NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) and Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) recognise the multimodal nature of literacy. As a general capability, literacy supports the need for students to develop the knowledge and skills to competently understand and create written, visual and digital forms of expression (NESA, Science and Technology K-6 Syllabus, 2017, p. 40).

Visual literacy, like visual-spatial thinking, is also multifaceted and develops from the way in which we observe our world visually (Gardner, 2011). Research supports the link between early development of visual-spatial abilities and STEM/STEAM innovation (Lubinski, 2010). Thinking and communicating visually can stimulate critical and creative thinking in any discipline. It is essential for conceptual understanding, spatial reasoning, ideating, rapid visualisation, divergent thinking, problem solving and expressing ideas (Tytler, 2016).

A wide range of outcomes and skills across the curriculum (K-10) support the development of these valuable skills. In the new Science and Technology K-6 Syllabus, both working scientifically and the design and production elements require students to communicate visually. Key terms – including draw, sketch, generate ideas, represent and model – provide a plethora of opportunities to foster visual literacy skills.

‘Drawing is not just about representation, it's about thinking. Trying to understand what you are looking at… The brain sends a signal to the hand and the hand sends one back and there is an endless conversation between them’ (Milton Glaser, 2008).

Learning opportunities to develop visual literacy skills for STEAM innovation

In my experience, teachers do not need to be expert drawers or designers to provide students with these learning opportunities. Simply reinforcing spatial language can be a powerful way to improve visual literacy competency in STEAM. Encouraging students to use explicit spatial terms and gestures in everyday lessons, across disciplines, supports visual-spatial ability. Research has shown that focusing on the names of shapes, dimensions, features and relative position of people and objects during everyday activities helps improve visual problem solving skills (Lubinski, 2010).

Short instructional videos could also be used to guide students through a series of visualisation exercises for design and production. While professional design skills are not essential, for best practice, teachers do need to:

  • be expert collaborators, willing to reach out and partner with other teachers, specialists and professionals to maximise learning opportunities for their students.
  • clearly define the success criteria for students
  • guide the design process to ensure acquiring the skill further enhances the process of inquiry and learning
  • value, document and showcase visual assets produced during the process, as evidence of thinking (for example, rough drawings, note taking).

Drawing in maths, technology and science: a Year 4 STEAM unit

At Hunter Valley Grammar School, the focus is on collaboration and innovative practice. Teacher librarians are timetabled to meet weekly with classroom teachers from each year group. From this practice emerged a collaborative STEAM unit with three Year 4 teachers and an industrial designer in which students drew their own robotic creature, detailing its technology/operating systems.

The class had previously been studying ‘Mechanica’ by Lance Balchin as their English text. Videos on How to draw circles/robot arm (6 min 35 secs) and How to draw an insect machine (14 min 44 secs) from Mr Lawrence were used to model drawing techniques for ideation. Students were required to use a draft and reflection process before applying their knowledge and skills in an assessment task (in-class). Their annotations and use of symbolism were documented in a T-chart, where students compared the function of the human systems to the robotic systems represented in their designs. The T-charts highlighted the detail and functional thought evident in their final designs. Student engagement was exceptional, as evidenced by the students’ final submissions:

Year 4 student work sample: Robot arms

Year 4 student work sample: Robotic creature

Designers, engineers, scientists and mathematicians encourage sketching multiple iterations of ideas. For example, the video on How drawing is used for maths and science by Sir Roger Penrose (3 min 51 secs) from The Big Draw explains how drawing can represent complex mathematical and scientific equations. In our Year 4 task, it was important for students to forget the pretty endpoint of a picture, allowing them to focus instead on visual problem solving and the function of their conceptual ideas. Thinking on paper (and via computer-aided design programs) facilitates the process of manipulating imagery in the mind. This method provides a powerful opportunity to explore how an idea may work in reality.

Rube Goldberg machines

Exciting integrated STEAM units, like NESA's Stage 3 Rube Goldberg invention activity, captivate students’ imagination and encourage visual thinking. They also lend themselves to a see, think, wonder approach to learning. As part of NESA’s sample activity, students ‘draw a plan of a Rube Goldberg invention that will fit the criteria. For example, at least three transfers of energy. This design plan should indicate materials required, lengths, heights, positions, and angles of placement’ (NESA, 2017).

The activity is designed to help students understand forces and the transfer of energy. Targeted outcomes are clearly outlined. This is an excellent, complete resource for teachers, which also offers options for differentiation. The activity could also be broken down for Stage 2 students by creating simpler, mini design thinking challenges.

Student work sample: a Rube Goldberg machine. Copyright U.S. Army CERDEC (‘CERDEC Math and Science Summer Camp 2014 - STEM in the Movies’, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic [CC BY 2.0]) and NESA.

Traditionally, a Rube Goldberg invention also tells a story. The associated narrative is often comical and dramatic, adding a dynamic literacy element to the project. Additional resources, for Stage 2 learners and up, can be sourced via the Rube Goldberg website, which offers quality teaching resources and hands-on STEAM ideas.

Alternatively, visually rich digital applications like Algodoo could be used to visualise a Rube Goldberg machine. Recommended for Stage 3 and up, Algodoo is a free desktop application (the paid version is for iPads) that offers an interactive multiphysics playground. Simulations with fluid, pulleys, hinges and motors are endless, and parameters such as gravity and friction can be explored. Algodoo is also a great tool for encouraging reluctant or less confident students to get hands on. Our students find it highly engaging, and are often overheard in the library saying ‘watch this!' or ‘how can I do that?' They enjoy peer tutoring and demonstrating their STEAM knowledge through the application’s amazing creations.

The video Algodoo contraption #2 - The Funworks Mechanism (5 min 55 secs) from PixelCortex offers an example of a Rube Goldberg contraption designed in Algodoo:

Re-Solve: Mathematics by Inquiry project

Programs like re-Solve: Mathematics by Inquiry (K-10), an initiative of the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers, successfully showcase how inquiry and visual thinking practices can help students apply maths strategies to real-world scenarios. In-depth units, such as Shape: Shadows for Stage 1, are provided for each year level. These free materials include classroom resources to support inquiry-based learning in mathematics, special topics for deeper inquiry with a STEM focus or authentic application, and professional learning modules. Rich opportunities are presented for investigating concepts through visual, physical, graphical and symbolic representations, such as in the Years 5-10 special topic, Bringing the real world into algebra.


Ultimately, visual literacy offers a wide spectrum of opportunities to enhance STEAM-based learning. Imagery truly is universal, and through acknowledging and valuing the potential of visual literacy across STEAM related areas, we can equip our students with the tools they need to mine their imaginations for innovation.

References and further reading

Algodoo. (2017). Algodoo, what is it?

Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. (2017). General capabilities: Literacy.

Gardner, H. (2011). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York, USA: Basic books.

Glaser, M. & Thurman, J. (2008). Drawing is thinking. New York, USA: Overlook Press.

Harvard Graduate School of Education. (2016). Project Zero: See/Think/Wonder.

Lubinski, D. (2010). Spatial ability and STEM: A sleeping giant for talent identification and development. Personality and Individual Differences, 49: 344-351. [Special Issue: Festschrift for Thomas J. Bouchard, Jr., Eds. Matthew McGue & Wendy Johnson.]

Mason, K. (2016). The STEAM Powered Big Draw Festival.

NSW Education Standards Authority. (2017). Sample work STEM Stage 3: Activity 1 Rube Goldberg invention.

NSW Education Standards Authority. (2017). Science and technology K-6 syllabus. Sydney: © for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales.

ReSolve. (2017).Mathematics by inquiry.

Rube Goldberg. (2018).

Tytler, R. (2016). Drawing to learn in STEM. Paper presented at Australian Council for Educational Research conference 2016: Improving STEM learning. What will it take?, Brisbane, QLD.

Zhou, Y., McBride-Chang, C. & Wong, N. (2014). What is the role of visual skills in learning to read? Frontiers in Psychology, 5: 776.

How to cite this article – Lawrence, K. (2018). Visual literacy skills for STEAM innovation. Scan, 37(4).

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