‘Boom! Fizz! Ker-POW!’ – UArizona instructor comics turn chemistry into an adventure

By Koda Benavidez and Daniel Stolte, University Communications


Colleen Kelley is a professor of chemistry in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Arizona.
Olivia Mendoza/University of Arizona

Imagine a world where chemical elements are not cryptic acronyms but charismatic superheroes; where the molecules are not formulas but bands of heavy metals; and where chemical reactions unfold in suspenseful storylines rather than a pile of abstract symbols and lifeless numbers. Welcome to the world of Colleen Kelleyprofessor of chemistry at the University of Arizona.

Crediting herself with a “wild imagination,” Kelley teamed up with a graphic designer to turn otherwise dull concepts into exciting learning experiences via chemistry comics. His goal : Changing chemistry education to engage enthusiastic learners aged 8-12.

“Comics aren’t like textbooks,” says Kelley, who runs UArizona’s teaching labs Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “They are fun and exciting.”

During his 25-year career teaching chemistry, Kelley noticed that many students seemed overwhelmed once they studied chemistry at the college level. Through conversations with middle and high school science teachers, she embarked on a mission to identify gaps in chemistry curricula that leave many learners struggling with the subject in college.

“There’s a huge leap between what’s expected of students taking chemistry classes in middle school and what’s expected in high school,” Kelley says.

This prompted her to think about ways she could help bridge this gap. However, once she started interviewing chemistry teachers in middle school, she realized another problem: “Many of them seem to dislike chemistry at all, so I looked for ways that would inspire them. to teach a more robust and accessible curriculum to students at the same time.

Some knowledge of chemistry is important for incoming students, Kelley says. Majors related to biology, environmental science, atmospheric science, and premedicine, for example, require two to three years of chemistry education as a prerequisite. Kelley believes that early exposure to molecular models and other chemistry-specific ideas is the best way to prepare students.

“My theory is to bring them in as early, enthusiastic learners and get them used to the symbols, then introduce some mathematical and conceptual ideas, so that by the time they get to high school and college, they can take off. “, she says.

Kelley says she first became aware of the need to revamp chemistry education when her son, who was in middle school at the time, came home with a mission to color the items on the board. periodic with different colors.

“When I asked him why he was supposed to do that, he said he didn’t know,” Kelley recalled. “That’s when I realized something was wrong. Usually middle school teachers aren’t trained in chemistry – just basic science – so I thought these teachers needed help.”

Based on her insights as a chemistry teacher and her conversations with educators and K-12 students, Kelley favors what she calls a more conceptual or symbolic approach to material, which she considers as a more accessible way to learn chemistry compared to traditional teaching. .

“When I look at molecules, I see them dancing,” Kelley says. “I understood that chemistry can be taught very much like the way we teach music, with its symbols, notation and imagery. But it took me 25 years of teaching to figure that out.”

Kelley says she’s observed that many students in high school and advanced placement chemistry classes tend to “math” to solve certain problems, relying on memorization and rote calculations rather than conceptual understanding. , which is a skill they must master once they reach college. His approach to comics is designed to put students on the path to design thinking right from the start of their chemistry education.

To help bring chemistry to life, Kelley has developed a series of 10 comics in which chemical elements take on the identities of characters, such as twins Poppi and Ray, who run the MC Detective Agency and apply chemistry to solve mysteries. Designed to encourage young learners to master chemical concepts in a fun and engaging way, the stories have a chemistry curriculum cleverly hidden within their exciting storylines and colorful graphics. To translate her story ideas into comic books, Kelley teamed up with graphic designer Mackenzie Reagan, a friend of Kelley’s son who was still in high school when she worked with Kelley to develop the first chemistry comic book characters.

Poppi and Ray’s adventures as chemical sleuths include traveling through time to rescue the “Radium Girls”, attending a modern rock concert to save a van Gogh painting that is endangered, and swimming in a bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume to find the “hiding aldehydes.” Readers eventually discover that MC in MC Detective Agency stands for Marie Curie, the French-Polish physicist famous for her pioneering research on radioactivity.

“Poppi represents the element polonium, Ray represents radium, and Granny Eve is named after Marie Curie’s youngest daughter,” Kelley explains.

Excerpt from the page of the comic “The Case of the Vanishing van Gogh.

In “The Case of the Vanishing van Gogh”, the protagonists Poppi and Ray discover that when a member of the group “The Heavy Metals” plays a duet with a member of the group “The Polyatomics”, certain colors reappear in the famous film by Vincent Van Gogh. Painting “Starry Night”. For example, when Cadmium plays a duet with one of the “Psychedelic Sulfurs”, yellow reappears because cadmium(II) sulfide is a yellow compound.
Colleen Kelley, Mackenzie Reagan

In tests with students aged 8 to 11, Kelley has already seen promising results about how comics help students build chemistry skills. She sent a book to about 10 families across the country, had them read it with their children, and then met with them on Zoom to talk about the material.

“What I observed in these Zoom sessions is that these children from 8 to 11 years old can confidently and quickly write formulas for complex ionic compounds and write and balance chemical equations after reading the comics on their own,” says Kelley. “It’s a skill that even college students struggle with, using the traditional chemistry approach.

Kelley says that to get her chemistry comics into the formal school curriculum, she would likely have to go through private or charter schools, where curriculum standards tend to be more malleable. Ultimately, however, his goal is to demonstrate the effectiveness and appeal of the comic book series so that it can be placed in public school classrooms, because “that’s really where it’s at.” finds the need,” she says.

So far, one book, “The Case of Van Gogh’s Disappearance,” has been completed, and three more are in various stages of screenwriting.

It takes about six months and $10,000 to take a book from script to finished print. To keep the momentum going, Kelley is seeking grant funding opportunities and hopes to eventually commercialize her method.

For this, she created a start-up, Chemical solutions for childrenas part of the current cohort of the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps, or I-Body program. facilitated by Technology launch in ArizonaI-Corps at UArizona East a program designed to prepare scientists and engineers to increase the impact of their research. It also provides funding and advice to researchers to assess the commercial viability of their work.

For now, Kelley is scrambling to finish more episodes of the series: The first book, “The Case of the Deadly Dials,” features the true story of the so-called Radium Girls – factory workers who suffered radiation poisoning after finishing watch faces with radioactive. painting in the 1920s. The second book, “The Case of the Missing Atomic Model”, introduces readers to atomic structure and subatomic particles. In the third book, “The Case of the Raider Pirates,” Poppi and Ray travel through time, Kelley says.

“Their mission is to rescue Lady Xenon, who is being held captive by the fearsome Pirate Clive – chlorine – as he holds her hostage for more electrons.”

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