Hands-on Activity: Visual Literacy: Tears in (Acid) Rain

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

Four photographs: Three show the physical deterioration of outdoor statues. One shows dying trees in a forest.
With no captions, do you know what is happening in these photos? (All show effects of acid rain.)
Copyright © Sheffield Hallam University http://www.shu.ac.uk/


The goal of this activity is for students to develop visual literacy. They learn how images are manipulated for a powerful effect and how a photograph can make the invisible (pollutants that form acid rain) visible (through the damage they cause). The specific objective is to write captions for photographs.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Environmental engineers conduct research and create new technologies that improve our air quality. They communicate information about the damage and dangers of air pollution or other environmental health issues to the public, industry and government, and suggest behavior, technology and policy changes. The modern engineer always keeps human and environmental safety, as well as long-term sustainability, in mind when s/he designs new structures, products and systems.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Write a caption for a photograph describing an environmental issue.
  • Students incorporate source materials into their speaking and writing (for example, interviews, news articles, encyclopedia information).
  • Write and speak in the content areas using the technical vocabulary of the subject accurately.
  • Read, respond to and discuss literature that represents points-of-view from places, people, and events that are familiar and unfamiliar.

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Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Apply scientific principles to design a method for monitoring and minimizing a human impact on the environment. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • A product, system, or environment developed for one setting may be applied to another setting. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Develop, communicate, and justify an evidence-based explanation about how ecosystems interact with and impact the global environment (Grade 6) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
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Materials List


A picture is worth a thousand words — only if it doesn't lie and only if it includes all the information necessary for you to interpret it correctly. Rarely is an image so powerful that it can stand alone. Images must be interpreted in context to be correctly understood. Part of that context includes your own life experience, opinions and preferences. Keep in mind that your own history affects how you see things. Be on guard not only for how others might have manipulated an image to make you believe certain things, but also how your own perspective and point-of-view may unconsciously influence how you perceive and interpret an image.

Even though our culture has become more and more visual, we are unlikely to be able to rely solely on images to communicate. Images are too easy to misinterpret! That's what captions are for — to provide a context for the image and help you to interpret it correctly. The best captions are short and to the point. They need to say just enough and not too much. They should not distract attention from the image or take away from its power. Whether you are a newspaper editor, a scientist or an engineer, the ability to write clearly, descriptively and persuasively is important. Writing captions is an art!


caption: A title, short explanation or description accompanying an illustration or a photograph.

context: That which surrounds, and gives meaning to, something else.

influence: A power affecting a person, thing or course of events, especially one that operates without any direct or apparent effort: relaxed under the influence of the music; the influence of television on modern life.

interpret: To explain the meaning of.

manipulate: To tamper with or falsify for personal gain.

metaphor: A figure of speech in which a word or phrase that ordinarily refers to one thing is used to refer to another, thus making an implied comparison, as in "a sea of troubles" or "All the world's a stage" (Shakespeare).

perceive: To become aware of directly through any of the senses, especially sight or hearing; to achieve understanding of; apprehend.

perspective: A mental view or outlook: "It is useful occasionally to look at the past to gain a perspective on the present" (Fabian Linden).

point-of-view: A manner of viewing things; an attitude; a position from which something is observed or considered; a standpoint.

simile: A figure of speech in which two essentially unlike things are compared, often in a phrase introduced by like or as, as in "He looked like a bear" or "She was as tough as nails."



Even though young people are culturally bombarded with visual imagery, they are not necessarily visually literate. They may be visually naïve and not understand how images can be manipulated. Or, if they have been exposed to the "magic" behind special effects and photo editing processes, they may be overly skeptical and mistrust the truth of just about any image. In general, they may not realize how ambiguous images can be and may jump to conclusions about the meaning of an image.

As this caption writing activity illustrates, a photograph can be easily misinterpreted. Even though a picture can speak a thousand words, sometimes it needs a caption.

Before the Activity

Photo Caption Analysis

  1. Show students examples of photographs and captions from the local newspaper.
  2. Discuss how captions address the journalist's questions: who, what, where, when, how and why.
  3. Point out that a caption sometimes has a 5-10 word lead-in that reads like a headline, followed by brief text that explains what is happening in the picture.

Caption Writing

  1. Hand out the Caption Writing Worksheet to each student. Ask the students to try to determine what each photograph is about and write a caption about it. Allow students 15 minutes to write down their interpretations.
  2. Ask students to share their captions with the rest of the class. Guide a group discussion with questions such as:
  • Why do people have different ideas about what is happening in the same picture? (Possible answers: Life experience, opinions and preferences influence interpretation.)
  • How does a caption influence what we think about what is happening in the photograph? (Answer: It provides a context. It points out what is important to notice.)

Caption Re-Writing

  1. Congratulate the students on their creativity in interpreting the photographs.
  2. Ask students to think about how the three photographs might be related in the context of the Air Pollution unit. (Some students may have heard of acid rain.)
  3. Discuss what the photos are actually about. (Answer: All show the effects of acid rain.)
  4. Introduce visual literacy concepts, such as perspective, point-of-view, image manipulation, context of the image, etc., and the vocabulary words. For background on visual literacy, see What is Visual Literacy? at: http://www.pwc.k12.nf.ca/projects/visualliteracy/whatis.html.
  5. Have students revise their photo captions in light of the new information.

Observing – Can You Believe What You See?

This activity is all about sharpening your observation skills. Locate some background reading to learn more about the subject of visual literacy and how images are often manipulated to trick you. See What is Visual Literacy? at: http://www.pwc.k12.nf.ca/projects/visualliteracy/whatis.html and the slide presentation, When Your Eyes Tell You Lies... at: http://www.pwc.k12.nf.ca/projects/visualliteracy/.

Thinking – Making a Statement with Images

A powerful image can make you think. What do the images in the caption writing activity have to say about the effects of acid rain? How do they make the invisible visible? (Answer: Through composition of the photograph [angle, lighting, choice of subject, arrangement of objects, etc.], use of color, before-and-after images.)


Mark Twain once said, "If I'd had more time I'd have written a shorter letter." How does that observation apply to the art of writing captions? Write (or revise) your captions using as few words as necessary to get the point across. Experiment with writing a strictly factual or informative caption, answering the journalist's questions: who, what, where, when, how and why. Then, try a more creative or poetic lead-in, using a metaphor or simile to describe what the photograph looks like, followed by a factual caption.


Troubleshooting Tips

The success of the caption writing activity depends on the students not knowing that the pictures represent the effects of acid rain. It is important to conceal that information until the end of the activity.


Pre-Activity Assessment

During caption writing, concepts of visual literacy can be introduced, such as perspective, point-of-view, image manipulation, context of the image, etc. Use call-out questions to test students' grasp of these concepts.

Activity Embedded Assessment

The Thinking activity focuses on the images themselves and why they are powerful, especially in light of the context and subject matter. Use call-out questions to test students' grasp of the photographic technique, and use of before and after images (image manipulation).

Post-Activity Assessment

The Writing activity focuses on writing captions for the photographs once their true subject matter has been revealed. Students should think in terms of their own shift in perception of how the images should be viewed. Conduct a final round of call-out questions to assess how well they have grasped the overall objective of the exercise, which is to develop a more sophisticated visual literacy and a more critical eye for the world of imagery and image manipulation.

As another way to test students' understanding of the concepts, assign the magazine images activity in the Activity Extensions section as homework.

Activity Extensions

  1. Instruct students to complete the Wipe Away the Tears: Extension Activity Worksheet as either homework or as an in-class extension activity. This worksheet provides information about mitigation versus adaptation strategies for combatting climate change, using acid rain as an example. Students brainstorm their own mitigation and adaptation ideas to minimize the harmful effects of acid rain.
  2. Look through current magazines for images that trigger an emotional response. Analyze the images critically to detect the methods of manipulation used.
  3. Learn more about the effects of environmental pollution on works of art. Even indoor art can be seriously affected, as the cleaning of the Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling revealed. Learn more about this monumental 14-year restoration project, which was completed in 1994. Why was the cleaning of the ceiling so controversial? Why were preservationists surprised by the colors that were revealed? What types of pollutants accumulated on the ceiling to make it so dirty? Do you think the ceiling should have been cleaned? For more information see http://users.wfu.edu/boguka5/FYS100/sistineceiling.htm.
    Two photos: A ceiling painting is murky and dark. After cleaning, the same painting is bright, crisp and clear.
    The Creation of Adam portion of the Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling.
    Copyright © Katie Bogue, Wake Forest University http://wayne.edu

Activity Scaling

  • If desired, have students work in two- or three-person teams for writing and research activities.


Air Pollution – Acid Rain. Pupil Researcher Initiative, Researchers in Residence, Center for Science Education, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield, UK. Accessed September 22, 2004. Originally found at: http://www.shu.ac.uk/pri/scripts/resources/uploaded/ideas/air_poll6.htm

Albert, Toni. Ecoprints: A Complete Kit for Writing about Nature. Mechanicsburg, PA: Trickle Creek Books, 1997.

Crawford, Leslie, et al. Energy Conservation. White Plains, NY: Dale Seymour Publications, 1997.

Crawford, Leslie, et al. Water Conservation. White Plains, NY: Dale Seymour Publications, 1997.

Dictionary.com. Lexico Publishing Group, LLC. Accessed July 17, 2004. (Source of vocabulary definitions, with some adaptation.)

Guilford, Chuck. The Journalist's Questions. Updated June 27, 2004. Paradigm Online Writing Assistant. Accessed September 22, 2004. (Highly recommended; an excellent, award-winning site.) http://powa.org/index.php

Leuzzi, Linda. To the Young Environmentalist: Lives Dedicated to Preserving the Natural World. Danbury, CT: Franklin Watts, 1997.

O'Connell, Caitlin; Bogue, Katie; and Sportack, Stephanie. Restoration of Michelangelo's Famous Works. Updated March 26, 2006. Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC. Accessed September 18, 2006. Originally found at: http://users.wfu.edu/boguka5/FYS100/index.htm

Prentice Hall. Science Explorer: Environmental Science. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2000.

Ricketts, Bridget A. When Your Eyes Tell You Lies, Lessons in Visual Literacy. Updated June 17, 2003. Art Technologies 1200, Prince of Wales Colegiate, St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada. Accessed October 21, 2004. (Great slide presentation.) http://www.pwc.k12.nf.ca/projects/visualliteracy/

Robbins, Sonia Jaffe. Some Tips for Writing Captions. Updated January 2003. Editing Workshop, Journalism Department, G54.1123, Week VI, Spring 2003, New York University, NY. Accessed September 22, 2004. Originally found at: http://www.nyu.edu/classes/copyXediting/captions.html

Suzuki, David and Vanderlinden, Kathy. Eco-Fun: Great Projects, Experiments and Games for a Greener Earth. Toronto and Vancouver, Canada: Douglas & McIntyre, 2001.

What is Visual Literacy? Lessons in Visual Literacy. May 2002. Prince of Wales Collegiate, St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada. Accessed September 22, 2004. (Excellent link.) http://www.pwc.k12.nf.ca/projects/visualliteracy/whatis.html


Jane Evenson; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Denise W. Carlson


© 2004 by Regents of the University of Colorado.

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under grants from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education and National Science Foundation (GK-12 grant no. 0338326). However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: February 8, 2018