Data Visualization Activity: An example with global precipitation data

Learning Objectives

In this activity, you will be shown examples of scientific visualizations and be introduced to a working definition of a scientific visualization.  You will be led on a virtual tour of visualization websites.  You will discuss the value of using visualizations to support Earth science teaching.  You will review guidelines for evaluating the visualizations.

Activity Goals

This activity will help you to:

  • Understand what is meant by scientific visualization.
  • Know where to find scientific visualizations.
  • Recognize the power of scientific visualizations to support learning.
  • Use scientific visualizations to teach Earth science concepts.
  • Select appropriate scientific visualizations for incorporation into an Earth system science unit by evaluating their suitability.

Standards Addressed

PA Science Standards:

3.3.6.A1. Recognize and interpret various mapping representations of Earth’s common features.
3.3.6.A4. Describe how water on earth cycles in different forms and in different locations, including underground and in the atmosphere.

NGSS Standards: 

MS-ESS2.C: Water continually cycles among land, ocean, and atmosphere via transpiration, evaporation, condensation and crystallization, and precipitation, as well as downhill flows on land.

Supplies/Materials/Articles Needed

A scientific visualization and a printout of the worksheet are the only supplies needed (unless students are evaluating a video, then video projection and possibly internet connectivity may be required). Examples are presented here, but other sites will contain appropriate visualizations. We have attached with this exercise two sets of global precipitation graphs from the GLOBE dataset that can be used with the exercise. We have also included an example completed for a crustal age visualization.

Links to scientific visualizations

Other visual tools to explore

Preparation Time Needed

Preparation time is minimal, just the time needed to select a scientific visualization to address, and complete the worksheet (can be completed in approximately 20 minutes).

Class Time Required

This can be a short (~15 minute) or longer exercise (~1/2 hour), if students are examining one data visualization or multiple visualizations (perhaps a spatial or temporal series of visualizations).

Activity Description

One of the goals of this exercise is for teachers to use scientific visualizations to build students’ understanding of water science - but any data visualization can be utilized to address a different content area.  Also, this student can be completed with students in a classroom, and a worksheet in included with this exercise that can be futher adapted to work with your grade level.

There are several types of data used and processes on Earth that can be studied with the data in visualizations. Earth scientists routinely use satellite data to create images, maps, animations, and other representations to help them better understand and visualize processes that affect and shape our planet.  They monitor earthquakes, track storms, measure sea surface temperatures and atmospheric temperatures, analyzing both short-term and long-term changes occurring on Earth.

By animating a decade’s worth of sea surface temperature data, Earth scientists can pick out periodic fluctuations, such as El Nino and La Nina events.  They can study the movement of ocean currents and predict weather patterns.  In particular, processes that occur over long periods of time can be animated and analyzed to help students understand the dynamic nature of planet Earth.

***This activity was adapted from Earth Science By Design Handbook for Professional Developers (2006), available at:

But let’s take a step back and define what we are talking about.

Scientific visualization – an image, photograph, map, graph, chart, drawing, illustration, animation, or simulation whose purpose is to promote understanding of a scientific concept or process.

Why should we use scientific visualizations in teaching Earth Science?

  • Computer visualizations are central to the practice of Earth scientists
  • Computer visualizations are dynamic and engaging
  • Computer visualizations enable Earth science processes to be viewed over space and time in ways not possible with other media
  • Computer visualizations can promote deep and enduring understanding