- Data visualizations designed for academic scientists are not immediately meaningful to everyday scientists. Communicating between a specialized, expert audience and a general, novice public is non-trivial; it requires careful translation. However, more widely available visualization technologies and platforms, including new three-dimensional spherical display systems in schools and informal science education institutions, often use the same visualizations that experts use to communicate amongst themselves, resulting in a public which often fails to make significant meaning from the visualizations.
This dissertation uses a pragmatic, bricolage framework, incorporating cognitivist, social constructivist, and sociocultural perspectives. I used semi-clinical interviews and eye-tracking to investigate academic scientific experts and novices as they attempted to make meaning from global visualizations of ocean data. Stimuli were fifteen visualizations, three topics with five versions of each visualization with different levels of scaffolding to improve communication: no scaffolding; changes to color scale; addition of geographic labels; revision of title and measurement unit; or all three forms.
Laboratory interviews revealed that non-science major novices struggled with decoding almost every part of unscaffolded visualizations, while experts had difficulty only in understanding the time of year and season represented. Novices did not always use supporting elements such as the title and key, could not understand jargon in unscaffolded titles, conflated the meaning of the standard academic science “rainbow” color scale used across multiple topics, and could
not always orient themselves geographically to the visualizations centered on the Pacific Ocean basin. However, their understanding improved on the scaffolded visualizations. Interviews in a public interpretive science center revealed further struggles with meaning-making; scores were lower than either laboratory participant group.
Eye-tracking confirmed the differences between the participant groups at the level of visual search of visualizations, revealing that novices looked at the map portion of the visualizations less comprehensively than experts in the unscaffolded case. However, novice scan paths on the scaffolded visualizations more closely resembled experts’. Fixation durations started out significantly lower on scaffolded visualizations than unscaffolded, suggesting better comprehension of the scaffolded visualizations. Both participant groups’ fixation durations decreased over the course of repeated trials in the experiment, suggesting practice improved meaning-making.
The fact that novices could make more academic scientific meaning from visualizations of data if exposed more often to meaningful, scaffolded visualizations in all formal and informal learning and communication settings leads to recommendations for exhibit design, visualization design, and instruction on using visualizations in meaning making about science topics.