Monday, April 30, 2012

Can Comics Teach Science? Part One

Can comics teach science? Teachers have already recognized the role that comics can play in Language Arts and Social Studies: honing reading skills, drawing in reluctant readers, and telling compelling stories about U.S. and world history, from Maus to Persepolis. Websites like The Graphic Classroom and No Flying, No Tights help teachers and school librarians discover and share comic books and graphic novels for use in the classroom.

But science? Can the complexity of science be squeezed into a speech bubble? And can comics help spark a love of science to last a lifetime and inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers, and citizen-scientists? Teachers, authors, artists, and publishers are coming together to voice a resounding:

In this first in a series of posts, I'm going to highlight some of the developments coming out of the exciting collision of science and comics. And I mean "collision" in the best possible, supercollidor kind of way: smashing things together at high speed, releasing lots of energy--maybe even bringing entirely new fundamental particles into being. Or at least some fog zombies and stalk-eyed fly pirates.

First up is Sequential SmArt. Coming up May 18 and 19 at Juniata College in Huntingdon, PA, this conference and workshop will explore the use of comics and graphic novels across the curriculum, from kindergarten through college. The final day will explore the use of comics to teach science, and will feature Kevin Kinney of DePauw on using the X-Men to teach about mutation and conference organizer Jay Hosler (Biology, Juniata) on teaching, testing, and creating science comics.

Hosler has created some of the best: Clan Apis about the lives of honey bees, The Sandwalk Adventures (in which Charles Darwin schools some creationist mites living in his eyebrows on evolution), and Optical Allusions (in which Wrinkles the Wonder Brain meets some stalk-eyed fly pirates on his quest to retrieve his employer's missing eyeball).

Funded by an NSF grant, Hosler wrote Optical Allusions (2007) as an experimental biology text for non-majors. He undertook the project in an effort to reverse the downward trend in science literacy. In hilarious fashion, Optical Allusions takes an example frequently cited by creationists in support of intelligent design--the supposedly irreducible complexity of the human eye--and reduces it. Since then, science comics have really begun to come into their own with such acclaimed titles as Nick Abaszis's Laika, about the Cold War canine cosmonaut, also from 2007, and Mark Schultz's The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA, with art by Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon (2009).

So the writers, artists, and publishers are embracing science comics. And they are even making their way onto syllabi and into classrooms. But what about the readers? Do science comics work as comics and as science? Stay tuned for the next exciting installment...

In the meantime, please share your own science comic favorites here, or on the Elefolio Facebook page, or via twitter @elefolio.

(Full disclosure: Hosler and I worked together on May Berenbaum's book The Earwig's Tail. I was the book's editor and Jay was the illustrator. And I'm a fan. Does it show?)

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