The need of Visual Literacy in Engineering Education

Visual Literacy is acknowledged to be of great importance in many professions, commonly in art and design, but also in every domain where visual information plays a significant role. In the case of science and mathematics, Visual Literacy skills are also of mostly relevant. In engineering it is paramount. Professors Craig L. Miller & and Gary Bertoline stated in 1991 that engineers must be visually literate to be successful engineers. 

Visual Literacy in engineering is reflected in their work development: engineers are problem solvers who handles a lot of visual information. An engineer requires visual means to express completely the results of their work: a mechanical design or an electronic scheme cannot be defined completely by describing it with words, it requires a pictorial description supported by symbols and annotations, which may be concrete (a mechanical object’ drawing) or abstract (an electronic scheme). 

Engineers uses and produces visuals in all of the technical problem solving tasks, since the identification of the problem to sharing the solution. Engineers need to understand and create messages in visual format as well as to create them to express concepts.

These messages are supported in different formats and abstraction degrees. Since schemes, computer graphics, freehand sketches as well as physical models.

Engineers uses a Visual language which is made up of symbols, standardized pictorial representations and annotations. This is how they understand and produce Visual information of engineering Drawings and sketches reflects Visual Literacy in engineering. 

An example of Visual Literacy in engineering is the design intent. How a graphic representation reflects exactly what a design engineers ideated, what an engineer wants to communicate. A set of graphic and text elements are needed to express this idea, so, for achieving that any engineer must be Visual literate enough to produce this adequate visual message.

One of the most important Visual Literacy skills for engineering is visualization. Being problem solving the main activity of engineering the use of visualization for this purpose is fundamental. To be specific for engineering, visualization means being proficient in handling in mind three-dimensional forms.  Spatial abilities are therefore most important.

Other fundamental Visual Literacy skills and abilities are those related to present abstract conceptual ideas graphically, using technical drawing or CAD. These are the skills to draw freehand as well as drafting, and to generate 3D models using computer programs. Visualization is also a required skill in graphic expression as it is necessary to understand projection drawings as well as to generate them.

In that case, engineers applies sketches, engineering drawings, or CADD databases. These are the Visual communication skills specific to engineering. Visual Literacy in engineering involves the use of Visual thinking, spatial reasoning, the use of 3D modelling, freehand sketching as well as creating physical models.

Visual Literacy in engineering not only related to their creative side, but to their analytical tasks. Apart of shapes and functional descriptions of designs, engineers need their Visual Literacy to express analytical information. They use graphic representation of data in all of the development stages of a product or system, as it is an easy way to explain results of calculations or empirical data collections. Sharing data by visual means is a key skill for a professional engineer.

There is a clear need to take into account the development of Visual skills in engineering curricula in the same way as analytical skills are. The key to have creative and innovative engineers depends on this.

VLEE project main events

Kick-off meeting Szcecin

The 6th of February 2020, the kick-off meeting of the VLEE project was held in Szczecin (Poland). In the official presentation of the project, All partners presented their organizations, putting attention on the experiences on the field of international projects. The agenda of the event was marked by the presentation of basic assumptions, objectives, anticipated results and timelines of the project.

Transnational meeting Madrid (Spain), held online

The second transnational meeting of the VLEE Project planned to be held in Madrid was held online the 6th july 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. IO1 progress was reported by UPM team. The two main development stages of IO1 were completed. Tasks to be done and timelimes on IO1 were agreed. IO2 draft was also presented by MMs.

Third transnational meeting Leitrim (Ireland) held online

Meeting expected to be held in Leitrim was also on line in the 25th February 2021. IO2 progress and planning was discussed. Research on VLEE toolkit was finished identifying a wide range of applications that can be used for developing Visual skills for engineering students. The selection of 24 tools for the final toolkit for VLEE was agreed to be done.

The VLEE project

Visual Literacy for Engineering Education (VLEE) is an EU Erasmus+ Project based on the collaboration of partners and experts from Poland, Spain, Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom.The aim of the project is to strengthen and enhance the visual literacy of engineers and to introduce innovative visual literacy training into vocational teaching and provision. Is based on the recognition that visual thinking and related skills are a key area of competence for today’s engineers across all engineering disciplines because of the relationship between spatial reasoning and graphic representation to problem solving and creativity. It recognises that the possibilities for developing these competences have grown exponentially thanks to the proliferation of digital technology.

VLEE seeks to address the identified lack of visual skills of EU students, by pursuing the provision of visual literacy for engineering training in our VET system through the following objectives:

  • The Competence Framework (IO1) is a concerted effort to structure and communicate the engineering-specific components of visual literacy in a way that speaks the language of educators, addressing the specific gaps in their knowledge
  • the Toolkit (IO2) is aimed directly at teachers and trainers who wish to increase the quality of their teaching using digital visual media tools, but are unsure which tools to use and how to use them.
  • the Online Course (IO3) complements classroom work, providing teachers a practical resource to help consolidate student’s skill.

This project will enable engineering students to adopt a more proactive and strategic use of digital visual technology in their learning (and future practice) of engineering. By teaching them how to think, reason, interpret and communicate visually through media such as mind maps, infographics, technical sketching, 3D imaging, vlogging, video explainers, and more it uses to technology to reinforce their engineering-specific cognitive skills and contributes to important transversal skills in digital literacy, particularly the third competence area in the European Digital Competence Framework for Citizens, “digital content and creation.”

The project will impact at a national level by bestowing a deeper understanding of the relevance of “soft” transversal skills such as visual literacy to engineering education and a recognition that innovative pedagogic strategies can make these competences highly “teachable” even within traditional engineering courses. While at a European level the project is designed to contribute to a shift in understanding of the role of VET Institutions, and in particular Engineering teaching, in contributing to transversal competences such as visual literacy and our ability to produce well-rounded engineers that flourish in the world of work.