The use of metaphors in science and technology

Guest Post by Rod Pitcher:

Last year Rod wrote one of our most popular posts on the use of metaphor in conveying concepts to students. He followed this one with a post pitched to PhD students, Metaphors and the PhD. A PhD student in Education at The Centre for Higher Education, Learning and Teaching at the ANU, he returns to the tomtom to share some thoughts on the role of metaphors in science and technology.

Metaphors are widely used in science and technology. They allow explication of new research results by comparing them with old or existing knowledge, which may or may not be scientific.

The old knowledge might be something that is held by everyone. The new knowledge is held by a few who must make it clear to any interested others so that it can be spread throughout the scientific or technological community. Science communicators do the same for the public. Often the ideas are so new that without using metaphors it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to explain them.

How to explain a new invention

A new technology, like a computer network, needs to be explained to people who have no knowledge of it. In this case, one can talk about the ‘web’ of the network, comparing it to a spider’s web, either by drawing diagrams or showing the person a real spider’s web. Thus the principal involved in how the points of the network are interconnected can be made clear to anyone who has ever seen a spider’s web.

Using metaphors in teaching science and technology

There is the need then for compelling and accurate metaphors to communicate the new knowledge to students. The use of metaphors makes it easier for an audience to grasp the principal of the thing.

Metaphors not only allow the knowledge to be passed on but also help in developing the vocabulary of the discipline, since many of the words used in science and technology are directly derived from the metaphors used to illustrate the concepts.

For instance, in talking about electricity we can describe electrons passing along a wire and make the comparison to water flowing through a pipe. The words ‘flow’ and ‘current’ used to describe moving water help us to describe electrons moving through a conductive metal. Thus in learning this metaphor the student has also learnt some scientific words. In the case of ‘current’ there will be more for students to learn and of course many ways in which the the uses of ‘flow’ and ‘current’ differ depending on the discipline.

This process is not unique to the sciences. We can see how other fields use scientific processes as metaphors for human or social phenomena. When we talk about a ‘groundswell’ of public support, a candidate’s ‘momentum’, or a particular issue as a ‘lightning rod’, we are using images from the scientifically described world as a kind of descriptive shorthand.

What about bad metaphors?

The provisional nature of knowledge means that that we should also be careful about how we use metaphors; reminding students that ‘the map is not the territory’. Bohr’s model of the atom and Copernicus’ model of the Solar System were better metaphors than what had come before, but they remain provisional representations — they are now used for beginners in the field, steps along the way to more complex analogies.

Why so many metaphors in science and technology?

Science and technology, then, are prolific users of metaphors. It’s difficult to imagine any part of science or technology that doesn’t use them somewhere in its explanations of what is going on.

You can imagine a number of metaphors that might apply in a description of the luminescence depicted on the left. Depending on the audience’s existing knowledge of chemical reactions and electronic states, a teacher or lecturer could convey the processes at work here in a number of ways. Describing Bohr’s ‘planetary model’ of the atom would be a useful first step.

Metaphors allow explanations to be constructed that can be understood by anyone with a little effort. If all teaching of science or technology, or spreading of information about their results, was done using only non-metaphorical scientific words there would be a lot less people who had any knowledge of what it all means, including many scientists and technologists!

Rod Pitcher is a PhD student whose focus of study is the metaphors that researchers use when describing their research. His last two posts on the tomtom can be found here. and here. Rod’s profiles are at: and

The images in this post are from a 2008 series of photographs, “Fluorescence of lucigenin” © RMIT University. Photographer: Margund Sallowsky.

Share your thoughts about the use of metaphors in your discipline in the comments below!

Visiting guests and noting opportunities

A photography lecture in 1947

Melbourne Technical College 1947. (cc) RMIT University Archives Image Collection

Posted by: Megan McPherson, L&T Group, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT.

One of the pleasures of being connected with a university is the opportunity to hear visiting lecturers presenting at different forums and for different audiences.

There are some great visiting professors coming to speak over the next few weeks; Anthony Paré and Helen Sword just to name two this week: Wednesday and Friday respectively- click here to register!

On 8 November 2012, Professor Erica McWilliam, Adjunct Professor at Queensland University of Technology, spoke at the RMIT College of Business Research Showcase in the Swanston Academic Building. Her audience was mainly comprised of research students in the College of Business involved in higher degrees by research, however her discussion was relevant to any one involved in knowledge creation and learning and teaching.

Professor McWilliam’s presentation was about scholarship and the discomfort of being involved in research that is challenging and new.

A few of the many ideas Professor McWilliam discussed were:

  • The three simple questions that she uses to define her research area:  What’s going on? How do you know? And So What? Twenty-first century researchers know that there are creaks and leaks in knowledge creation; it is how you, as a researcher, position yourself in relation to these three questions which is relevant.
  • What counts as a field? McWilliam suggests Robin Rogers’ notion of twenty-first century researchers operating in a tessellated field and our ability to collaborate, as networks and nodes, changes the way we think of discipline boundaries. Twenty-first century researchers need to be able to tolerate the discomfort of working not in one field or discipline, but being crossdisciplinary, interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary. Check out the Research Whisperer’s post for detailed discussion of these terms.
  • Twenty-first century researchers creating trouble for what she called ‘straight thinking’, questioning how we design research, using patterns rather than straight lines. McWilliam used Gosling’s The Knight’s Move as the metaphor; see her keynote speech to the 3rd Redesigning Pedagogy International Conference (The Knight’s Move: its relevance for educational research and development, 2009).

The McWilliam keynote was twittered on the day by @kyliebudge, @thesiswhisperer and @MeganJMcPherson with the hashtag #mcwilliam. Using Twitter in a lecture presentation is a form of active note taking. It’s also a way to practice writing short, sharp summaries of bigger ideas. Anthony Paré describes this as a type of heuristic writing to make sense; and to make meaning and knowledge. The tweets start to make a narrative of the event, and the results can be both a record and a prompt to do further work with the information.

The Twitter notes have been useful to connect me with information and to network with others. I found the other keynotes referenced here and Kylie Budge (@kyliebudge) found McWilliam’s article ‘From school to café…’ and posted it to Twitter. The notes have been interesting for networking in academic circles; I had great questions and supportive comments in my Twitter feed from academics from different countries and from within Australia.

Thanks to @thesiswhisperer and  @kyliebudge for tweeting at the presentation in the room and all others who contributed to the #mcwilliam feed. Professor McWilliam’s Twitter handle is @elmcwilliam.

You can use tools like and to look at and collate the tweets from hashtags. When the College of Business has the video finalised, we will provide a link here too!

References / Further Reading:

Judge, A (2012) Insights from Knight’s move thinking, accessed 18 Nov, 2012

McWilliam, E (2009) The Knight’s Move: Its relevance for educational research and development. Keynote paper presented at the 3rd Redesigning Pedagogy International Conference, Singapore. Accessed 18 Nov, 2012.

Click here for slides from the above keynote.

Paré, A. (2009) What we know about writing, and why it matters. Compendium 2, 2(1), Dalhousie University. Accessed 18 Nov, 2012

Thomson, P (2012) Academic travel diary: a narrative to find the way. Accessed 18 Nov, 2012

Share your thoughts about getting the most value from conferences and visiting guests in the comments!

Room computer is now active…

Posted by: Megan McPherson, L&T Group, Design and Social Context College, RMIT.

A new smartboard awaits input at RMIT

(© Megan McPherson)

After reading Spiros’ post from a couple of weeks ago, and sitting in on some professional development sessions in the Swanston Academic Building SAB practice room and in the Technology Enabled Active Learning (TEAL) space in Applied Science, I thought I would have a look for what else is available for Audio-Visual (AV) training at RMIT.

Self serve…
There is a set of RMIT training videos that are step-by-step guides in getting different equipment up and running. As a first step, the videos are informative and simple to follow:

Where to get help…
As new learning and teaching spaces come online, RMIT has set up a classification system depending on the AV equipment and the collaborative functionality of the space. This is where your friendly AV services support person comes in handy to make sense of the AV technology. Some of the AV enabled teaching spaces have been customized to work in a particular room and some have just been updated. So it is a good idea to make an appointment with AV services to get the rundown of any differences and to get comfortable with the room you are teaching in before the new semester starts.

Taking it further with collaborative tools…
Both the SAB practice room and the TEAL space in Applied Science have different capabilities that enable different types of collaborations. In the SAB practice room we tried out the software tools that enable collaboration, sharing and archiving work within groups and the class.

A blue screen points students to the web login for their group

Colour-coded screens point students to their appropriate working groups
   (© Megan McPherson)

In the scenes shown above, each of the collaborative groups had a screen with a particular colour and students linked into the system through a web address. I particularly liked that each of the screens had whiteboards next to them; if the technology fails, there is always a whiteboard and a smartphone photograph to document the activity for further collaboration.

For a list of the teaching spaces with new AV equipment, check out this AV teaching spaces with new technology list. To find out more about the classifications see the pdf- RMIT Design Standards- Section 11- Audio Visual.

Additional technical support…
If you want more support and training to take advantage of the audio visual capabilities of  any of the AV enabled teaching spaces contact Audio Visual Services and check out the videos above.

For urgent AV assistance, please call the audiovisual support line on tel. 9925 3316 during IT Service Desk hours of operation.

For general AV enquiries, please contact the IT Service Desk.

Share your thoughts and impressions of the new spaces or anything related to AV and collaboration in the comments!

Running repairs

Posted by: Jon Hurford, L&T Group, Design and Social Context College, RMIT.

Image: RMIT’s Graduate of the Year, Dean Benstead and his air-powered motorcycle at the 2011 Sydney Motorcycle and Scooter Show. Courtesy of RMIT News.

With less than a month of teaching remaining in the semester, now might be a good time to conduct some running repairs to your course. In this post I’ll put forward that reflection, in a couple of forms, is the first step to these repairs. With some form of summative assessment probably on the horizon, you might also encourage your students to take part in a similar exercise.

It’s only natural that by this time of the semester you’ve probably had a guest-speaker cancel, a room-booking gone awry or a dip in student attendance. Some of your students may have had health problems; you yourself may have had to take leave.

Remind students of your office hours or contact details and publish a quick review of what’s been covered. These reassurances (the breadcrumbs back to successful completion) will  go a long way to relieve the anxiety of those who are feeling like they have lost touch with your course. Look at this post from earlier in the year on the teaching tomtom to jog your thoughts on assessment, reflection and the student perspective.

A course survey might also be looming, so it’s important that your reflective course-correction isn’t seen by students as anything that smacks of a lack of confidence or simply as pre-polling; survey fatigue can be a drag, both for students and on your scores. So what else can you do, and importantly, how can you get your students participating in this work?

First you probably need to cover the basics by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Have you covered the learning outcomes and made them clear to students?
  • Has the course content and assessment allowed exploration and demonstration of the learning outcomes?
  • Are there program capabilities targeted in your course that could provide the industry or disciplinary context to what’s being studied? Do students understand the bigger picture of what this course is trying to achieve?

A quick review might reveal a learning outcome, a tricky skill or concept, or a program capability that you realise has been skimmed over (or that you simply haven’t treated in the depth that you would have liked). It’s not too late to fill in those gaps!

And if that checklist seems complete you might be ready to look at the really big picture:

It will be up to you to determine what level (and therefore which schema) you think is most valuable to share with your students. A first year course in TAFE differs from a capstone course in a Masters; the latter probably lends itself more to the six graduate attributes. For first year students it probably wouldn’t hurt to quickly traverse the path from an assessment item that has already been completed, through to a program capability. This way you’re showing students the throughline, or the path, of their current and future studies.

Similarly, wouldn’t it be valuable for students who may have been at RMIT for just three months to be picturing themselves as graduates of their program? This is the expectancy-value theory of motivation as used by Biggs and Tang (2007) in practice: “…a commonsense theory of why students do or do not want to learn…which says that if anyone is to engage in an activity, he or she needs both to value the outcome and to expect success in achieving it.”

Whichever level you choose to look at, it’s important to get a sense of whether the students also feel these aspects of the course have been covered, in short, to validate your own perceptions. Work out the best way to get this feedback in a quick and genuine way. It might be as simple as issuing sticky notes and having students write down what they feel has been covered and what they’re still unsure of. For more ideas on different feedback approaches see the following RMIT tip-sheets:

Providing feedback to students
Motivating students and stimulating interest

Once you’ve got this feedback you need to set up a space to get the students working on it. If you’re not already using a blog or the tools on Blackboard, this could be your opportunity to start.

Using whichever schema you feel is appropriate (the criteria for the final assessment, learning outcomes, program capabilities, graduate attributes) set up a space for your students to do the work and determine what work needs doing. It could be as simple as a topic set up on Blackboard where students can discuss their understanding of the criteria for the final assessment.

You could even create a handle or a hashtag on Twitter for your course. This will create a chronologically-organised microblog that could form a quick course review linking to longer articles on the web. Or it could simply point students back to great conversations that you’ve observed, or participated in, on the discussion board.

Hashtags like #flipclass, #blackboard and #teqsa, are all shortcuts into posts, communities and current articles that have been recently mentioned on the teaching tomtom. But if you’re not willing to take that step, Blackboard announcements could be used to achieve a similar outcome.

So my tip is to make use of the thinking that has been embedded into your course and your institution; make use of the schema at hand, whether it’s at course, program or graduate attribute level.

At the risk of labouring the metaphor, in this home-stretch of first semester, what tips can you share with others about finishing the semester with confidence?


Biggs, J. & Tang, C. (2007). Teaching for Quality Learning in University. 3rd ed. Berkshire: Open University Press.

The use of metaphors in teaching and learning

Our next post is by guest contributor, Rod Pitcher, a PhD student at The Centre for Educational Development and Academic Methods at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. Rod’s PhD focus is the metaphors that people use to explain their conceptions.

Image by: by justjk accessed through flikr

Metaphors are very useful in teaching and learning because they use already held knowledge as a scaffold upon which to build new knowledge or to illustrate some property of the new concept to be learned. Metaphors are of use to both the teacher and the learner and they help in the process of both teaching and learning. It’s helpful to think about this as we design the learning for our students.

Here are a few examples that illustrate how and why they are useful:

Metaphors in teaching electronics
Metaphors are common in teaching electronics. Radio waves are compared to ripples in the surface of water, electricity flowing in a wire is compared to water flowing in a pipe, spider webs are compared to communication networks. Each of these metaphorical objects has some property which casts light on the relevant area of electronics.

Although the metaphors aren’t perfect they help the learner to come to terms with the new concepts. The metaphors use knowledge that the learner already has of the surrounding world to illustrate some property of the unfamiliar topic. Thus learning takes place by building on that previously held knowledge

Metaphors in teaching writing
A thesis or academic paper can be compared to a number of things when teaching writing.

One of the most useful is that of weaving cloth on a loom. Like the cloth, the paper has to be constructed properly, the individual strands have to be placed in the right places to do their jobs. When the cloth is finally produced it has to be trimmed and cut to suit the purpose to which it will be applied. Similarly the finished paper will have to be revised and cut if necessary to suit the audience to whom it will be presented.

A thesis might also be related as the story of a journey, showing the researcher’s development as a researcher, the problems overcome in the progress of it and the thoughts of the person as they progressed. Like a journey the paper will have tough and easy stages, interesting byways and some entertaining digressions from the most direct path but will eventually reached the required destination.

Metaphors in teaching and learning
The type of metaphor used in teaching and learning depends on what is to be taught and learned. The metaphor must be chosen to illustrate the required concept. Choosing the wrong one would be disastrous for the teacher and misleading for the learner.

Metaphors have a great place in teaching and learning. They should be used more as they ease the path of both. However, they should be used with care and discarded when they have served their purpose. If the use of a particular metaphor is prolonged past its useful time it may become misleading or confusing to the learner.

Use them with care, but use them all the same.

What metaphors do you use in your teaching?  Do you have a cunning way of illustrating a concept that helps enhance your students’ understanding?