Using digital tools and visual imagery for teaching biology

Parul Khurana

Associate professor of biology and associate dean for the School of Natural Science and Mathematics, IU East

Dr. Parul Khurana has in the past assigned her students an end-of-semester project to create public service announcements relating to a scientific topic. Her students often ask if they can present it in a variety of ways. Can they create an infographic? Or a YouTube video? Or a moving animation?

This might sound like a description of students in an arts or media course. But Khurana's students are enrolled in the senior capstone course in the biology program at IU East.

In the capstone course, Khurana has always expected students to create a presentation, often in the form of a PowerPoint and an accomplaying oral presentation. But recently, because of interest from her students, she has expanded the options they have in fulfilling the project requirements.

"We have a lot of pre-professional students who want to go into medicine and graduate school," said Khurana. "But a lot of them are very creative, especially when they draw diagrams or make presentations for cell biology and botany. Creativity increases their interest and willingness to do the project."

Besides fostering creativity, Khurana said she sees other benefits to the expanded options. First, in connection to principles of Universal Design for Learning, which emphasize creating multiple means by which students can engage with their learning:

"I knew if I just restricted them to the PowerPoint, it's going to just suppress their creativity, which is not what I wanted to do," she said. "Plus, if they're interested in this, they're going to be more interested in the project and actually give their full attention to it. I think that really matters."

Second, it teaches broader skills in digital literacy and digital communication, especially important for those who understand science and might be able to help explain it to lay audiences.

Communication is so important. If you're going to conduct scientific research and it's going to be useful for humans, you have to explain it to people who don't have the scientific background.

In fact, Khurana often relies on her own experience in explaining to students the value of creativity, digital literacy, and communication.

Before she became a biology professor, she grew up in a very creative household. She was always interested in drawing and painting, and her father introduced her to the world of photography. This led her to discovering Adobe Photoshop, which she eventually used in her career.

In graduate school, Khurana would incorporate her photography and visual design skills into her studies and research. She would take images from a microscope and put arrows and rectangles to point out areas of interest, or collect images from a video to create a montage, which led to creating very vivid, clear, and more audience-oriented presentations.

These communication and presentation techniques have helped her stand out in the scientific community, winning awards for her presentations at conferences and becoming an IU Bicentennial Professor.

It's this personal experience, in part, that informs Khurana's belief that being able to creatively and effectively communicate scientific information to audiences in a way that everyone can understand will make her students become better scientists. These skills are vital for others who go into science-adjacent fields, too. For example, she has students who have expressed interest in working for science museums or a career in scientific illustration.

"I think creativity will help there because a person with a science background could help create accurate illustrations and graphics or webpages, posters, or pamphlets for a museum," she said. "Visuals can help make complex concepts more engaging and easy to understand. There is so much science in the news and in social media right now, and I think that's creating more opportunities for students to go into these fields."

Digital literacy is a must-have today, especially when trying to combat scientific misinformation. It is also important for employability and success in various STEM fields. But Khurana knows that creating these opportunities in a course can be difficult when faculty are being asked to rely on new technology so much during the pandemic. However, she still encourages her colleagues to do this by starting small. For example, she suggests using a tool like Adobe Spark, which students can use to easily create web pages, videos, or graphics in a matter of minutes without being technical or visual design experts, or Adobe Premiere Rush, which can be used to quickly and easily edit video together.

The first thing I would tell faculty is, 'It's easy for you to learn as well. There are so many different creative ways that you can use it in your pedagogy, and it will positively impact student engagement and learning.'

Getting started with Adobe at IU

More ways to use creative software in your teaching

IU is the first university to offer no-cost, enterprise-wide access to Adobe Creative Cloud Pro, including Adobe Stock (read the announcement here). And, as one of only 40 Adobe Creative Campuses worldwide, the IU community will benefit from special opportunities like webinars on Adobe Stock. For a wide variety of resources on getting started with Adobe at IU, be sure to visit