Stick figure drawings can help you understand the world

When’s the last time you drew something? Aside from doodling on the sides of our notes, most of us haven’t drawn anything since elementary.

bio-pic-e1414427567578But drawing assistant professor Michael Namkung in the College of Communication, Architecture + The Arts, says drawing can help us understand the most difficult of subjects.

Namkung has launched a website called Dragan – the Old English word from which drawing is derived – to show how important drawing is in the lives of everyday people in South Florida.

For 10 months, he will post bi-monthly online journals featuring interviews with people who use drawing in everything from the arts to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. He wants to broaden the definition of drawing and demonstrate its value across the disciplines.

“The impulse to make marks and behold what one has made—as a way of thinking about the world and our place within it—is a phenomenon we all experience as young children,” he says.

In fact, drawing is one of the most important toddler developmental milestones, according to Early Childhood Central’s website, citing Founder of Drawing Network Bob Steele, shows how each developmental stage of drawing helps children develop other skills, too – from fine motor skills to problem-solving and trial-and-error reasoning. The latter two are necessary for future endeavors in the arts, sciences and math.

“When a child draws,” Namkung says. “It’s just a natural way to use your body to make an image that helps you understand the world, see the world or reflect the world. There’s a saying which drawing instructors constantly repeat: ‘learning to draw is learning to see.’”

He says adults use drawing the same way, but they don’t always realize it.

“Although drawing is no longer the mainstay it once was in formal education, the intuition, necessity or even urgency to draw persists,” he says. “Like when engineers… [sketch a project when brainstorming] or when a surgeon draws to communicate to their patient what they are going to do. It plays this social role to communicate an understanding.”

But drawing doesn’t always mean putting pen to paper. Namkung says drawing can be anything from children making shapes while playing with their food to a beachgoer scribbling in the sand with a stick.

An example of FIU physicist Angie Laird using drawings

An example of FIU physicist Angie Laird using drawing in one of her classes

Geology professor Grenville Draper, who will be featured in one of Namkung’s online journals, uses drawings routinely in his research and teaching.

“I communicate a lot of concepts through drawing,” Draper says. “Most common sedimentary rocks are layered, and different layer thicknesses affect the kind of geometry that develops. You can scribble as many words as you like, but the only way to see it is with a cross-section drawing like in engineering.”

Gren Draper's sketch of a deformed layered rock in a gold mine in the Dominican Republic

Grenville Draper’s sketch of a deformed layered rock in a gold mine in the Dominican Republic

Students are often surprised when he asks them to sketch rocks and processes.

“When you make the sketch, you have to not just reproduce the rocks, but analyze and interpret them,” Draper explains. The geologist, especially when doing field research, will sketch rocks in a way that emphasizes the features that are most crucial from the scientist’s perspective.

Draper often draws diagrams in class to help students visualize the material. He recalls a few years ago, he drew a complex diagram on the board during class. His students appreciated the diagram. “But,” Draper adds with a chuckle, “one student snapped his pencil and said, ‘how do you expect us to draw that?’”

Inspired by Namkung’s project and fueled by the realization that many students don’t have a clue about how to draw, Draper plans to help his senior geology students understand a few basic drawing concepts, so they can sketch rocks and geological processes with confidence.

Click here to read Namkung’s first online journal, which features interviews with several people, including FIU physicist Angie Laird and her use of drawings to understand her research on the brain.

Support for DRAGAN is provided by Cannonball through its WaveMaker Grants program, which is part of the Andy Warhol Foundation’s Regional Regranting Program. WaveMaker Grants is supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs, and Wells Fargo.

Additional support is provided by Florida International University’s College of Communication, Architecture and the Arts through its Interdisciplinary Seed Grant program.