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Teaching Science with Comics

posted: 6.10.13 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

In this column, I have talked about comics pedagogy for many different academic subjects: foreign languageshistory, information literacy, and service learning.

Comics also have a history of being used in science education.  Our Understanding Rhetoric collaborators Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon illustrated a graphic guide to genetics and DNA called The Stuff of Life with Mark Schultz.  The subject of the biological mechanisms of inheritance actually invites illustration, given the importance of visual explanations in the discipline.  From the Punnett squares of Mendel to the architecture of the double helix of Watson and Crick, visualization has been an important part of scientific discoveries in genetics.  At last year’s Comic-Con International, vendors hawked a number of science themed issues, including the “Spectra” series with its “LaserFest Superhero” that is designed to teach high school AP Physics students about topics such as “force” and “power.”

Of course, some types of science comics are better suited to the subject matter than others.  As Scott McCloud points out in Understanding Comics, layouts of Japanese manga often draw attention to counterintuitive or alienating experiences of time and space.  So it may not be surprising that The Manga Guide to Relativity attempts to explain phenomena involving observation, relativity, and subatomic particles by showing juxtapositions of states and conditions.  Often these comics are intended to simplify the complexities of scientific discourse to audiences unfamiliar with the concepts.

In Understanding Rhetoric, we depict scientist and science fiction writer Greg Benford as a character in the final chapter of our book, where he discusses composing in both academic and creative genres.  In illustrating the book with Benford’s character, we don’t attempt to explain scientific concepts, but instead stay close to the topic of rhetoric.

Recently Benford and his brother James hosted the Starship Century Conferenceat UC San Diego to commemorate the founding of the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination.  (The Benfords co-edited a companion volume about interstellar space exploration.)  A number of the event’s participants, including sci-fi author David Brin, have collaborated on the creation of graphic novels, but Benford has yet to author a graphic novel of his own.


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One Response to “Teaching Science with Comics”

  1. Mary Baken, Webster University Says:

    Have you seen Zak Zych’s Cartoon Chart of the Periodical Elements? This is a Periodical Chart re-imagined so that each element is portrayed with a cartoon/superhero character. Very unique and memorable. Check it out at cocobe.com